By George Gately
As CEO of a small, nonprofit corporation, my avocation as a soccer referee has been an adventure in learning. What began as a way to get exercise and earn extra dollars has been a virtual advanced degree in human relations. From Saturday afternoons to Monday mornings, a bridge was constructed that benefited every area of my life. Lessons on the exercise of authority, handling mistakes, teamwork, human nature and life-goals have been the unanticipated perquisites of refereeing.
1. Use your authority skillfully
The referee owns the game-controlling whistle and enjoys unchallenged authority to manage the match. Players, coaches and spectators expect the referee to use that authority. The game cannot start, fouls are not penalized and goals are not scored except by the referee’s signal.
More frustrating than a poorly skilled referee is one who is timid. “Blow the whistle, ref,” is a common complaint. Sometimes it is people venting emotions. Other times it may be the justified protest of people looking for order, justice and the pleasure of watching skillful play. Certainly any referee can overreach her authority. But, to the degree authority is vested in the position, people expect and want that authority exercised.
Do not abuse, but skillfully use, the authority vested in your office.
2. Handle your mistakes quickly
Mistakes happen. Every referee notches a few in every game. Be happy if you walk away with few and minor mistakes. Major mistakes haunt good referees for weeks. Big or small, mistakes are the vehicles that can carry you to the next level. Be accountable, evaluate, decide and move on. Own up to your mistakes. If necessary, run by the offended player and say, “Sorry, I blew that one.” Good players readily accept the apology and get back to the game. Goal-scoring – success – is what they care about.
In the few seconds during a stoppage, evaluate the error quickly. Don’t become fixated on it and don’t allow it to contaminate the match. Answer the questions, “What happened?” and “Why did it happen?” Was it fatigue? Attitude? Lack of knowledge? Decide on a simple strategy to avoid repeating the same mistake and move on. Everyone else wants to put it behind them. Don’t be the one who keeps it alive. Whatever you do, don’t try to “even the score” by a misguided make-up call.
After the game, you can thoroughly evaluate the incident, often with input from your assistant referees (or, perhaps, an assessor). Take positive action. Correct where needed. Do not dwell on any mistake. That leads to more, and greater, errors.
Focus on doing the right thing, not on mistakes committed or anticipated.
3. Be a team player
Teamwork makes a good team. Pride takes two forms – one healthy because it is tempered with humility, the other destructive because it is dominated by vanity.
Every referee is part of a team, with only one serving in the middle. The competitive spirit needed to be a good referee also makes it hard to serve as the assistant. For a time, I resented my assignments as an assistant, especially when I thought (often mistakenly) that I was better than the person in the middle. I even found myself taking pleasure in a referee’s mistakes and shortcomings. Ugly! When I became aware of my bad attitude, I changed.
I resolved to be the best possible person for the position assigned – middle, assistant or fourth. If by my actions I can make the referee look good, then I am a success, too. A brilliant performance by the team enhances my reputation, too.
To whichever role you are assigned, perform to the best of your ability as a team player.
4. Remember: It’s not about you
It is human nature to be self-centered. Few people enjoy being screamed at, cursed and verbally degraded. However, such is the fate of sports officials. Not to please everyone, or to make others happy, or to justify every decision, but to ensure safe, fair, enjoyable soccer is the referee’s job. Enforcing the Laws of the Game is the best method available to that end. Just because people are screaming, criticizing or calling into question your native intelligence does not mean you are doing poorly. In fact, it may mean just the opposite.
Anger is a common reaction when, in life or in soccer, things do not go our way. Sometimes a referee’s best compliments are angry outbursts from people who, by attempting to circumvent the rules, sought to get their own way. Being at the center of a storm of human emotion can feel uncomfortable. We would all rather receive plaudits and praise.
5. Develop goals beyond personal aggrandizement
Refereeing can be rewarding work. However, at times it can feel like an assignment delegated from the pit of hell. There comes a moment when the modest remuneration, fleeting recognition and fading hopes for international glory are eclipsed by demands on body, mind and spirit. Carrying the full weight of authority through tedious, poorly played matches can tempt a referee to walk away, unless it’s balanced by goals greater than personal glory.
Referees who successfully negotiate the reefs of discouragement are those who find purposes beyond themselves. Love for the game, the virtues of mentoring younger referees and the opportunities to advance the sport by one’s professionalism are examples of goals that inspire and sustain the spirit. When you embrace those and similar goals, every success in the world of soccer feels like a personal victory.
Dr. George Gately is a veteran soccer referee from Mooresville, N.C. He is the chief executive officer of the Lake Norman Christian Ministries. The N.C Amateur Soccer Association honored Gately as the 1999 Referee of the Year.
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