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Officials are expected to ensure that fairness is achieved throughout the match. Often working through team captains or leaders helps to ensure fairness and safety. Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

Gil Weber, USSF National Emeritus referee and contributing author to several USSF publications, described the referee’s task: “Refereeing is all about fairness. It’s balancing what the player with the ball thinks is fair versus what the player who is trying to take the ball thinks is fair. We are the arbiters on those two opinions that quite often are not in sync with each other.”

Weber’s description highlights the core of the difficulty of our job as officials. At the beginning of each season or each tournament, NFHS, NISOA, USSF, AYSO officials are assigned to games with teams that they have not officiated before. As soon as the whistle blows, officials must determine as quickly as possible what each player individually — and each team collectively — thinks is fair. If the official learns both teams have similar thoughts about fairness and have similar skill levels, officiating will be relatively easy. As the season or tournament progresses and officials are seeing teams repeatedly, the task becomes simplified by familiarity.

The average official at youth games must accomplish that much more often than the top-level officials in the English Premier League, Bundesliga or Italy’s Serie A. Even the best officials in the world can have difficulties; think back to the difficulties England’s Howard Webb had in the 2010 World Cup Final. Netherland’s Nigel de Jong’s boot came in sternum high on Spain’s Xabi Alonso and Webb issued a yellow card.

To successfully manage each game, where can an official obtain accurate information about what the players think is fair? Would you believe … from the players?

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After each contact between opponents, there is a small window of opportunity when players exhibit honest body language. That window is less than a second — after that the window closes. The players then exhibit body language designed to influence the referee’s judgment of “fairness” in their favor. A referee that develops the skills, knowledge and fitness to be in a position whereby a substantial amount of the honest body language can be observed and understood has a valuable game management tool.

Every year I instruct at least 10 USSF recertification clinics. Many of the attendees at those clinics are youth officials whom I met on the other side of the whistle during prior seasons. From those students, I have learned that officials who mess with player happiness are on a slippery slope toward game-management problems.

For example, in the opening minutes of a U-16 game, A5 and B8 are jostling for control of the ball along the touchline. The ball goes out of play. The referee (or assistant) believes that the ball, before going out of play, was last touched by B8. B6 goes to collect the ball while team A is backing off to a position compatible with receiving a ball from a throw-in. The referee blows a whistle and signals that team A must take the throw. The body language of team B, in that instance for longer than a second, has sent the referee a message of opinions concerning fairness. However, the referee has decided to ignore that information and impose his or her own opinion. Those players and their teammates have immediately formed a negative opinion of that official’s competence. A first impression is only formed once!

In games with players (and coaches and parents) of limited experience (U-6, U-8 recreational), there may be a need to explain when the ball is actually out of play and which touch will determine the throw-in to create the happiness desired. But not in most games.

An extrapolation from Weber’s statement could be officiating to achieve happiness. When a referee can witness (by positioning, etc.) the golden second of initial body language provided by the players, a source of valuable information about player happiness is available that assists the officiating crew in better game management when it achieves the confidence to use it.

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A state-level referee ought to be able to achieve that “read” on the game within the first five minutes — if he or she has never seen either team before. Most officials with more than 250 games under their belt ought to achieve that level of understanding within the first 15 minutes of kickoff. If you aren’t “getting it” within 15 minutes, work with a mentor or assessor to help you break down and analyze game video of at least three game segments so you can see players’ reactions to your decisions.

When the referee has reached the described level of confidence, game management requirements begin to fall into different categories: games where all player opinions are well matched, games where the players have disparate opinions about what is fair, games with players of disparate skills, games with both disparate skills and disparate opinions of fairness.

“Listening” to the player information in that way opens up new possibilities for game management when the teams involved are sufficiently soccer mature and are well-balanced with respect to what they regard as fair. You have just made a call and the golden second of body language after the call tells you that you have made an error. I have had success with moving in close to the player and asking “What did I miss?” When the player answers, I pay attention to the information, respond with an appropriate comment and a pledge to try and position myself better. I have received responses such as, “Don’t worry about it referee,” “I understand” or “Thanks, referee.”

In a typical high school season, you may officiate more than 40 different teams. Recognizing and using the golden second can significantly improve game management through a more timely understanding of what each team regards as fair play. One of the characteristics of the high school game is the amount of player changes from year to year. Gathering information during that second can greatly assist officials to quickly recognize what category of game they are dealing with at each assignment.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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