Referee Nuts and Bolts – March 2009

By Bob Sumpter, NISOA


This is a new column that will appear regularly on the NISOA Web Site.  The column will deal with both intercollegiate and interscholastic soccer referee concerns.

Each topic presented will be short and to the point. Each will address a very specific topic about either basic or advanced soccer referee skills, college and high school rules and their interpretation and application, attributes a referee should want to develop, systems of mechanics, administrative items that are required of the referee, or the personal characteristics most helpful to a referee, all of which describe abilities the referee needs for competency both on and off the field.

At the tail end of every short discussion you will find one or more “tips”  that, if followed, will help you on your way to becoming a “top” referee in college or high school soccer.

It has often been said that every successful soccer referee usually has gathered a “bag of tricks”, that is: pieces of information, skills, techniques and experiences that when applied in the right situations help assure a good game outcome.

This series is called “NISOA Referee Nuts and Bolts” because it will address each topic in a very basic, practical, and common sense way so that you can absorb the information and have the basis for putting into practice those items that you believe will most help you in your attempt to reach a level of refereeing excellence that you have set as a goal for yourself.

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1. Why am I out there?

A sensible question for the Referee to consider is why am I out there?  To answer that you have to define what you want to accomplish when you officiate a game.

History has proven that a competitive game like soccer needs an impartial judge to see that the rules are followed by all participants, and to take whatever corrective action is prescribed when the rules are violated.

When the modern soccer game was first instituted in the 1800s, there was not a Referee on the field.  That position came later out of the need to maintain the integrity of the game.

One of your important tasks is to set the standard of allowed conduct for each game you referee.  That means that from the beginning to the end of the game you penalize any act by a participant that violates any of the rules. This must be done in an objective way so that participants on both teams are treated equally. If you are able to do this consistently then the result in every game you officiate will be decided by the player and team skills, and not by unfair tactics or behavior.

Another important task is to see that injuries are avoided to the extent your officiating matters. College and high school rules emphasize the matter of player safety. Absolutely no conduct should be allowed to be repeated that has the potential for injury. Your prompt handling of misbehavior can help attain this goal.

A final task is to referee in a way that allows the participants to get the most enjoyment from being part of the game.  That mostly involves your assuring that participant behavior remains within the rules of the game.

Tip: As a minimum, you should set three objectives when you referee a game.  Make sure the game is: (1) fair, so that the contest can be decided by skills and not by unfair means, (2) safe, so that all participants can be protected from any harm caused by unacceptable conduct or other avoidable factors, and (3) enjoyable for the participants and spectators.

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2. Eight available game control techniques.

Different Referees describe their duties, powers and responsibilities in different ways.  The rules also specify these authorities.  A way to simplify and define these tools given you  by the rules to control a game and participants is to first group them to describe each as a control technique, and then to paraphrase the list into short, one-word descriptions.  I call these the eight discretionary powers.  They are “the nuts and bolts” of the college and high school Referee profession”, and are in order of increasing power and effect: Talk, Whistle, Advantage, Caution, Eject/Disqualify, Suspend, Terminate, and Forfeit.

You need not only to know what these are, but how and when to use them to best effect.  They cover the whole scope of your discretionary power in a game.

Why do this?  It is important for the Referee to learn not only what tools are available, when to use them, and how to use them, but it is equally important to learn to use as many (or all) of them as needed to control your game.  A quote I often remember is the saying coined by Bedford Forest, the Civil War General, who when asked how he was able so consistently to win battles, said that he always tried to make sure he got to the battle “the firstest with the mostest.” And that’s a good maxim for you to remember. There will definitely be times in your career as a soccer Referee that you will have to use every technique available in order to control a competitive game.

Each of these eight powers stipulated in the rules that I paraphrase are covered next in more detail, with examples of how and when to apply sensible discretion in their use.

Tip: Before moving on, think about these key powers. Research each and define them in your own terms for your understanding and guidance.  Each can have a powerful effect on player behavior, and when used correctly, can assure a well managed game for the Referee.

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3. Talk, as a control technique

Referees often talk to players throughout the game to help control their behavior and help them avoid misconduct. Soccer rules do not specifically say that the referee may, or should, talk to participants to help control behavior, except when discussing the Caution or Ejection procedure, or giving the notice of termination of a game. However, the right verbal advice to a player at the right time can help avoid a problem later on. So, you do need to develop the ability to say the right thing at the right time to help control participant behavior in your games.

Advising you to talk to players at key points in a game to try to help them improve their behavior is a good beginning. Pointers on how to judge when to do so, and what to say is next. Saying the right thing at the right time to a player to counsel about behavior is part of the skill to be developed.

The oldest example I can remember is one that I heard when I “ran the line” for Larry King.  Larry was a NISOA Ex-president, a top Referee on the International List, was a Police Lieutenant, and about as imposing a six-foot-four figure on a soccer field as you can imagine.  In this particular pro game, Larry decided to Caution the star player on one of the teams about 5 minutes into the game.  When Larry approached the player, who was about 3 yards from my position on the line at the stoppage, the star player began the customary dispute about the call, the Caution, and Larry’s judgment.  Larry calmly wrote up the Caution in his notebook and when finished looked at his watch, then said to the player: “Mr. (-), you’ve just been cautioned, and according to my watch we’re only a few minutes into the game.  That means you have a long time to go on your good behavior if you want to stay in this game.”  With that, Larry restarted play and ran off leaving the player to think over what Larry had just said.  The player, a bit startled at the response, went on with play, and didn’t cause any behavior problem for the rest of the game.  The result: the right advice, at the right time, and done effectively.

Another example I remember is of a successful Referee I know who made a regular habit of keeping a rough mental count of the fouls called during the game.  He learned that at times it helped to pass on the information as an informal, private word to a player who may be nearing a Caution for persistent infringement.  This Referee approached the player concerned just before the second half was to begin, making sure that no other player could overhear, and told the player he had been called for “x” fouls in the first half.  Most players the Referee counseled thanked him for the “heads up.”  More times than not, that informal word was enough for a player to “settle down” and avoid becoming part of any serious problem during the rest of the game.

Another example I can offer is my general response to complaints from players (or other team personnel) when penalized for an infringement. (Dissent is frequent in these potentially heated instances.)  Whenever a player complained about the punishment, my response was: “If I allow you to do that, then I have to allow all of the other players on the field to do the same and not be penalized, and in this game, I am not about to let that happen.”  More often than not, the player involved thought about the response and then “settled into the game” without further trouble.

Tip: First, realize whether or not your past efforts at talking to players have yielded good results.  If you analyze your experience and find that you are not very adept at what and how to say the right thing to help a player, hold off until you discuss the technique with other fellow Referees and think out how you might improve this skill.

Tip: No one expression or statement is a sure-fire cure for a control problem with a player.  However, it will very often make the difference in helping a player to improve behavior and stay in the game.  When properly used, “Talk” will help you successfully control player behavior.

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4.Whistle, as a control technique

When and how we use the whistle to stop play for rule violations can affect subsequent player behavior. Deciding when and what to whistle for is the first problem.  Judging a violation, infringement, or misconduct is entirely at your discretion.  Since even in a well-written rule describing the conduct to be penalized, the wording used leaves the translation of the words up to the Referee.  It may seem that the words describing unfair play are consistently well understood by all Referees, but that is often not the case.  Once you accept the fact that it’s up to you to make the decision on each and every act, you then need to observe, discuss, and practice recognizing the types of play that need to be penalized for the sake of behavior control.

Another thought to mull over is that you have an obligation to call rule violations as they occur.  Many Referees make the mistake of trying to avoid stopping the game for violations because they fear too much whistling will interfere with the “flow” and “enjoyment” of the game.  Obviously, this is only correct if you call for unnecessary, minor, or “trifling” occurrences.  However, if you allow unfair play to take place without penalizing, you (in effect) encourage unfair play.  That certainly also works against your game control.

In your need to correctly determine when foul play needs to be penalized, you must certainly absorb their description in the rules along with any explanatory guidance given.  But you must also depend on available referee Instruction, Assessment and Interpretation Programs for additional guidance. Add to these observations of and discussions with other Referees, both at games and at the periodic meetings and other get-togethers you attend.

One good way to reassess you approach to handling rules violations and misconduct is to realize that they all involve unfair play.  In the end, the recognition of unfair play will boil down to a sense that you develop which tells you that this is an act that violates the rules, violates the sense of fair play and sportsmanship around which soccer is built, and that requires correction if a fair game is to be played out.   This sense gets built up within you mostly through a variety of experiences,  discussions, activities, and mostly getting out into the middle of games and practicing the art of refereeing.

Tip: When you see an act, and your senses tell you that it’s unfair, that’s your signal to whistle without hesitation, and to try to correct the behavior by the proper penalty.

Tip: As to the matter of whether to artificially limit the number of times you whistle in a game so as to not interfere too often, it’s mostly up to how the players conduct themselves and whether you are also able to use your other discretionary powers to appropriately control behavior.  If the incident is “trifling”, you often do not have to penalize. A quick, private word with the offender may do just as well.

Tip: You have an obligation to enforce the rules, and to insure fair play.  So long as you use your whistle to do so in a fair, firm, and consistent manner you will be successful in using this discretionary power.

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5. Advantage as a control technique

The use of advantage is meant to help a team, against whom unfair play has occurred, and who still gains a perceived benefit in spite of and during the occurrence of the unfair act.  Calling “advantage” allows the game to continue without stopping at that moment to punish the infringement. That way, the offended team may be able to realize a benefit by not stopping play.  The thought behind this technique is that the game also becomes more exciting and enjoyable by allowing the action to continue. Punishment for the unfair act, if required, can be administered later.

The application of advantage by the Referee has always been a tricky technique.  In recent years it has become a bit easier to use since the rule was changed to allow the Referee to stop play to penalize the infringement if the called advantage did not materialize.  In the years before that change, once the Referee had allowed advantage, the decision could not be nullified even if the advantage had not been realized.

There are a few thoughts to consider about using advantage in a sensible way to improve the game.

Understand that once you allow advantage you are essentially allowing unfair play to occur without penalizing it at that moment.  If that happens too often in a game the possibility of negative reactions by players who have been unfairly played against becomes a concern.  That, of course, also depends on the skill level of the teams involved and whether or not follow up action is taken by the Referee when required.  If the act allowed requires a follow-up Caution or Ejection/Disqualification after completion of the play involved, make sure that you penalize at the appropriate time.

When you allow an advantage, make absolutely sure that as many of the players as possible hear and see your call and indication of the advantage.  That will avoid the feeling among players that you have either not seen the act, or that you did not recognize unfair play.

Referees should remember the advice coined by Ken Aston some years ago.  Ken, of course, was an International Referee Instructor of some renown.  His advice was that: “Advantage should never become a license for foul play.”  He wanted us to recognize that if players got a sense that we would allow unfair play without penalty, there would be an inevitable breakdown in player behavior.  He also wanted us to learn that serious foul play should never be allowed just because an advantage might be gained.  Serious foul play must be punished whenever it occurs without fail. In essence he advised us to use it sparingly, in situations where there was an obviously good advantage to the offended team, of the type that would give them a good chance of significant benefit such as (but not limited to) a run on goal or a chance at a shot on goal.

Learning to use this discretionary power properly can certainly help improve your ability to control player behavior.  It can also help elevate the excitement and enjoyment of the game by allowing more attacking play and possible scoring opportunities in the game.  But, this must be done within the sensible control of player behavior.

Tip: The use of Advantage allows an unfair play to occur without immediate corrective action.  If the advantage does not materialize, stop play promptly, and punish the infringement without fail.

Tip: Make sure that if you do call an advantage, signal clearly and call out loudly so that all players see and hear that you are doing so.

Tip: Do not over-use advantage.  Apply it when a definite gain can be realized by the team that was fouled.  Retaining control of the ball is not necessarily enough.

Tip:  Do not allow “advantage to become a license for unfair or serious foul play.” Better to punish the foul or misconduct.

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5. Caution as a control technique

The Caution is a fairly strong power for the Referee to use.  It essentially lets you not only penalize a player for unfair behavior, but more importantly lets you advise the player that on a recurrence the player will be sent out of the game and not allowed to participate.  In a sense, you place a player half way out of the game when you issue a Caution.

In getting this across to the player be firm and clear about your action.  Avoid using confrontational or threatening language or expressions, and keep the procedure and warning as short as possible.  And, be very clear that it is up to the player’s future conduct whether or not he or she remains in the game afterward.

The power to Caution is a formal power in that it requires you to use a specific procedure in cautioning the player involved.  Most rules and mechanics include some combination of the following steps: stop play, display the card, indicate the player to the scorekeeper and/or coaches, inform the player he or she is cautioned and the exact reason, record the incident, record player name and jersey number, inform the player that on any other misconduct an Ejection/Disqualification will be issued, and then restart play.  Also, be sure to prepare and submit the required post-game report.  The post game report is essential to help insure that the appropriate school and\or game authority will not only be aware of the player behavior problem, but will be able to consider whether or not follow up administrative action is needed to correct long-term behavior.

Finally, what you say and how you say it is important.  After the Caution, it’s best if the conversation stops at that point, and you get the game restarted as soon as possible. However, if you feel an additional word of counsel is warranted, then make it brief and to the point.  Get on with the game as soon as possible. Avoid making any statement to the Cautioned player that might engender a response.

Often a cautioned player will offer one or more remarks to either justify the act, or to suggest that your judgment is wrong.  Whether or not you choose to treat the remarks as “dissent” is obviously your choice, and will be based on what you need to do to maintain control of behavior.  So long as the remarks made are civil and respectful, you may choose to respond briefly and try to quiet a tense situation.  But if you do, make sure that a prolonged exchange is avoided.  It is most always best not to encourage any exchange at all, but to get on with the game.

Tip: Make sure that when you issue a Caution, the player clearly understands that he or she is half-way out of the game, and that one more such act will complete the process.

Tip: When issuing a Caution, follow the procedure prescribed in the rules and mechanics of the competition to the letter. Do not fail to prepare and submit a post game report.

Tip: If an additional word of advice or counsel is needed, give it but keep it short and to the point.  Restart the game as soon as possible.  Long-windedness works against control.

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7. Eject or Disqualify as a control technique

This is the strongest power you have to use in disciplining individual players.  As you know, it allows you to punish a player’s misconduct by preventing that player from taking any further part in the balance of that particular game. Your immediate aim in issuing the Ejection (in college soccer) or the Disqualification (in high school soccer) is to order the player off and see that the player leaves the premises of the field as quickly as possible.

Ejection/Disqualification requires that you follow a formal procedure in ordering the player off.  As you do in issuing a Caution, follow the Ejection/Disqualification procedure to the letter.  And just as importantly, make sure that you prepare and submit the necessary post game report to the institution or game authority, as specified.

Stop play, display the card (or cards, as required), inform the player he or she is Ejected/Disqualified and the exact reason, indicate the player to the coach (and scorer), record player name and jersey number, inform the player to leave the field and premises, make sure that happens, and then restart play.  Also, be sure to prepare and submit the required post-game report.  The post game report is essential to help insure that the appropriate school and/or game authority will not only be aware of the game problem, but will be able to consider whether or not follow up administrative action is needed to correct long-term behavior.

The primary advice to the Referee is to keep any necessary conversation with the player involved to a minimum. Eliminate any extra conversation if possible.  Once you decide to eject or disqualify a player, there is little need or value in any conversation at all other than the exchange required by the rule book procedure.  The player will most likely be quite upset, and any extension of the brief time it takes to see that he or she leaves the field and premises is usually non-productive.  A player being ejected, or disqualified, from the game by you for serious misconduct will likely become a source of additional misconduct if the procedure is not completed quickly.

Also, if the ejection or disqualification is for a player committing a serious infringement against and opponent, then either the aggrieved opponent or other opponents as well may well try to confront the player being ejected to retaliate either verbally or physically.  You will need to be prepared to handle such an additional control problem when ejecting a player.  This is an instance where your specific pre-game instructions to your Referee team may pay off by having the Assistant Referees take whatever actions you specified pre-game.

Tip:  Follow the ejection/disqualification procedure to the letter.  Prepare and submit the required post-game report to the game authority.

Tip: Make sure that the player does indeed leave the premises of the field so that no further problem is experienced.  Do not restart play until you see that the player has left.

Tip: Beware of any dissent or misconduct at that time by teammates, coach or other bench personnel objecting and trying to argue with your action.  These often occur.

Be prepared to deal with them promptly and firmly.

Tip:  Make sure to cover with your Referee team in the pre-game briefing what help you expect of them in case of control trouble at ejections/disqualifications.

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8. Suspend as a control technique

This refers to your discretionary power to Suspend play for any cause you decide justifies a delay. The matter of suspension for field conditions will be covered elsewhere.

In the context of this power as a control technique, it can help relieve player, team, and/or bench control problems.

Should a game get to the point where poor player or team behavior has made the game dangerous to the participants, or it becomes obvious that your efforts at controlling player and team behavior at an acceptable level are not succeeding, you may decide to try to use a temporary suspension of play to restore the level of conduct and fair play to a satisfactory level.

The use of a temporary game suspension for conduct adjustment is a power not often employed.  Consider carefully whether you believe that player conduct could really be improved by use of this power.  The overall conduct of both teams up to that point in the game will help you make a sensible decision

A decision to suspend play might be taken after a number of Cautions and Ejections have not seemed to work in lessening player misconduct.  The main reason a brief suspension of play and of the clock will help in restoring a decent level of behavior control in the game is if both coaches are willing and able to cooperate in settling their teams.

There would be two ways to proceed.  One would be to stop play and the clock, and approach the coaches, and ask their help in “quieting down” their players and encouraging them to avoid any further misconduct.  If you elect to ask the coaches to help in this manner, make the request brief and to the point.  Give them a stated, limited time to talk to their players.

Secondly, make clear to the coaches that this is a last resort before considering a decision to terminate the game.  Make equally sure they understand that in the interest of the game and the players involved you will not hesitate to end the game if needed.  By explaining this clearly there will be no misunderstanding on their part if you do have to decide to end the game prematurely because of unacceptable behavior.

No other conversation or warning is needed.

Tip: The power to suspend should not be used except as a last resort before a decision to terminate is made.

Tip: Stop play and the clock for the brief time it takes to address the coaches. Address both coaches and enlist their aid in restoring a proper level of conduct.Tip:  Make sure both coaches understand that you will not hesitate to terminate if the conduct does not improve.  No other conversation or warning is needed.

Tip: Make sure to prepare and submit a post-game report to the game authority explaining the need to Suspend.

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9. Terminate as a control technique

This is indeed the most powerful discretionary authority you can exercise in a game.  Essentially, you consider that the only course of action left in dealing with player or team misbehavior is to not allow the game to proceed to its normal end.  In short, you send everybody home.

The matter of game termination because of other conditions will be addressed elsewhere.

While an extreme action, it may be that in your Refereeing career you will have to decide to do so in a particular game because of the contestants’ lack of control over player and team behavior and/or the fact that the misconduct is now endangering player safety.

If that ever occurs, do not hesitate to terminate a game.  If you judge that player and team safety is compromised beyond repair because of unacceptable behavior, then you should take immediate action.  Your judgment is the best for all concerned. You are the sole objective authority in the game.  You are also responsible for player and team safety insofar as the level of behavior affects them.

If that point is reached, stop the play, clearly and briefly inform both coaches of your action, then leave the field and game site.  No further conversation is need or suggested as useful.

Make sure to prepare and submit a written report to the institution or game authority, as is specified.  The ultimate responsibility for taking any required follow up corrective action then rests with that authority.

Tip: When player misconduct is “out of control” or endangers the safety of other players, and you have not been successful at properly being able to control player misconduct with all of the control techniques available to you, then do not hesitate to terminate.  Do not risk either player safety or a general disorder after making a reasonable effort at control.

Tip: Inform both team coaches quickly; do not discuss but inform; leave the premises as quickly as possible.

Tip:  Make sure to prepare and submit a post-game report as required to the game authority.  It is their responsibility to fully investigate the incident and take whatever responsible and required actions are needed against the team(s).

Tip:  Do not risk player safety or general disorder after making a reasonable effort at control.  You have a number of techniques available to you.  However, if on a given day these are not effective, then there are probably other reasons for teams not behaving properly.  Leave it as their problem and not yours.

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10. Forfeit; an unusual power

Both college and high school competitions allow for a game to be forfeited based on administrative or conduct problems experienced, such as not having enough eligible players or not showing up at the scheduled time (usually plus grace period) for the start of the game.

The college and high school rules are unique in granting the referee the power to forfeit a game to one of the contesting teams during the course of a game as a result of player, team or coach misconduct. The NCAA Men’s and Women’s Soccer Rules (2008) specify that the referee has the power to forfeit if: 1. (in his or her judgment) a coach prolongs a discussion with an official or refuses to leave the field at the request to do so, 2. A team refuses to return to the field within 3 minutes after being ordered to do so by the referee, 3. A player ejected earlier reenters the game as a substitute and is later detected, and 4. a coach and/or institutional representative fails to submit an official game roster before the beginning of the game.

The NFHS Soccer Rules Book (2008) allows as a reason for forfeit if a team has fewer than seven eligible players remaining. Other than these specific instances, only the game authority may declare a game forfeit.

Your power to declare a forfeit in a college or high school game is rare. With other groups who sponsor soccer, the power to forfeit a game is usually not given to the Referee. In college and high school soccer it is, and is meant to be, a particularly strong disciplinary power.  Therefore be careful to exercise this authority with common sense, since it awards a game without the team having to win on the field.

Understand that the choice to declare a forfeit is not discretionary, it is mandatory for you to do so under those specified conditions of misconduct by a team, player(s), or team coach.

Tip: Make sure that if you declare a game forfeit to either team that the specific conditions of the rules have been met.  To do otherwise would be to unfairly determine the game winner, and go against the intent of a soccer contest, that is, for a team to win through the exercise of team and individual skills.