Game Control

By Abbot Leonard, Past NISOA Director of Instruction and National Clinician

This article presents a series of suggestions on how you, as an Interscholastic Soccer Referee, can attain and maintain control of a high school soccer game. While a number of suggestions are presented, these are many more techniques and approaches available to the experienced Referee. However, these add up to a firm basis on which to approach the challenge of game control.


Some Referees can lose control because of loose officiating, allowing too much contact without intervening, and by not penalizing unfair contact and play. The NFHS Soccer Rules are specific in detailing the various unfair acts that the Referee must penalize.  Among the most important are those that involve unfair physical contact between opponents. The way to make sure that un-penalized unfair contact do not result in loss of control is to recognize all such contact, and act quickly, firmly and consistently to immediately penalize with the prescribed punishment. There is little justification for any Referee adopting the practice of overlooking any unfair contact violation.


Allowing a game to become too physical will usually result in control problems, as well as promote possible player retaliation against an opponent because of a previously unpunished contact violation. Gaining control over rough play requires you to be continually alert to unfair rough play. The NFHS Soccer Rules gives descriptions of rough play that help identify the types that should be penalized: deliberate, dangerous, reckless manner, excessive force, flagrant.

Also, the rules describe many specific acts that constitute unfair and rough play. You can attain and maintain game control by being careful to not allow rough action to become part of the game.


Game participants often try to question your authority in various ways.  Often this is referred to as dissent. But it can also involve other subtler acts.  Sometimes a player will call over to the Referee: “What was that, Ref?” implying that an act by an opponent should have been called a violation.  Or, more directly, call over: “Are you serious, Ref?” Both are common and appropriate examples meant to question Referee authority.

In gaining control, remember some basics about dealing with players: (1) handle the first instance of dissent, (2) answer questions on interpretations but not on your judgment or authority, and (3) when you do choose to answer a question, do so in a civil, brief manner, and require that the player do so to you.


You can lose control if you over-officiate by calling every infraction, both major and minor.  The concept of “trifling fouls” is long established in soccer.  Constant interference in the flow of the game causes for minor infractions control problems. You need to judge when an act should be penalized. Call violations that deserve penalizing; avoid calling everything.


To do so, take control early by setting the standard of allowed behavior for the game right from  its beginning. The first minutes of a game can be critical to obtaining and maintaining control over behavior. Failure to do so early on, and allowing participants to test your authority, and not being consistently firm and fair from the start, can cause control problems.


Mechanics are important to control.  Follow the prescribed mechanics and procedures specified in the system you are using for the assigned game. The NFHS Soccer Rules allow three Systems of mechanics.  Your State High School Association decides which one you are to use in that jurisdiction. Make sure you and your Referee Team reviews and agrees on all important points of the system used in your game.  Poor or incorrect positions, lagging too far from the play, and taking unsighted positions, cause control problems.  However, moving into correct positions, making sure to adjust quickly to cover every new situation, and making sure to keep players sighted by the Referee Team at all times, help your ability to control play and participants.


Obviously the Coach is the authority responsible for player and team tactics, strategy, and administration.  However, during a game, the Referee and Referee Team are responsible for the proper management of the game according to the rules of play and conduct. The coach or any other team personnel have no right or authority to question your authority by dissent, or to negatively interfere with the conduct of the game. You should act quickly to stop a coach from baiting or openly dissenting with your decisions.  Handle the first instance of such dissent promptly and firmly.  Also, make sure that the coach and non-playing team members keep to the prescribed Team and Coaching Area.


Letting serious foul play or violent conduct go un-penalized is an invitation to loss of game control. Once you allow such violations without immediately penalizing, you in effect, suggest to all of the other players in the game that they might well get away with the same type of conduct. Also, allowing hard contact without some reaction such a verbal admonition or appropriate call can also cause game problems. Learn to understand the effect of not penalizing serious foul play or violent conduct on game control. Be willing and prepared to immediately disqualify a participant who commits such an act.


You lose control in a game more easily and rapidly when you are in poor physical condition, not fit enough to keep up with play, and not maintaining a personal fitness program throughout the year that attains the fitness level required for the high school soccer game. Staying in good physical shape rests squarely on your shoulders. You must understand the effect of a poor fitness level on your ability to referee competently.


Understand the concept of the Referee Team: that of acting as a cooperating unit, all equally qualified to help in every aspect of game management and control.     The use of signals to communicate is imperative. The lack of continual communication within the Referee Team, and

poor communication, signals, and mechanics lessens game and behavior control.


Maintaining a calm exterior, keeping your composure, address players civilly and firmly, and avoid any show of temper. These are great assets for the Referee. Your appearance of self-control can be a great tempering influence on the conduct of the participants.


Your genuine respect for players and your displayed positive attitude towards them go a long way in achieving game control.  Mutual respect usually results in good game management. A negative attitude, or a lack of mutual respect are seldom helpful.  Should a Referee adopt a disrespectful attitude towards players, it will probably negatively affect decisions and judgments.


You are often judged by players and teams by how you appear on the field. Poor appearance, improper uniform or equipment, or poor personal grooming can work against your ability to adequately manage a game. Remember the old adage: Look sharp! Feel sharp! Be sharp! Also remember, first impressions do count.


When you incorrectly anticipate violations, give false whistles, incorrectly stop the game and thus interfere with the game, these mistakes provide embarrassment due to over-anticipation of events that never happen. Your job is to punish acts that happen.  So, don’t anticipate an act, wait until you observe it. However, once a violation occurs react quickly.


The appearance of being nervous, jumpy, over-excited, or in a hurry, unnecessarily, causes participants to lose confidence in your judgments and actions. A calm exterior works wonders. Try to adopt and maintain that calm exterior.


Being or appearing too friendly to either a team, coach, team personnel, or player(s) causes unnecessary suspicion about your objectivity. This is sometimes called the “Buddy, Buddy Syndrome.” It’s best to remember that you are not on the field to conduct social conversations with participants, but to manage the game.  If you do know one or more participants and wish to have a word, then do so after the game ends. Don’t appear to fraternize with or favor a team.


If you try to listen to all of the comments made during a game by participants, teams on the sidelines, game announcers, and spectators, you stand the possibility to be unduly and mistakenly influenced by inappropriate comments. That’s often referred to as having “Rabbit Ears.” Instead, make sure you concentrate and hear only the things that must be controlled and stopped (e.g., dissent, incidental vulgar or profane language, taunting, using insulting-offensive-abusive language.) Learn to tune out, and learn to concentrate on the game and participants.


Lack of rules knowledge is a certain cause of loss of game control. As the only rules authority permitted to exercise judgment and punishment in a game, you must master the rules. If you have no desire and make no effort to learn, you should not be a Referee.


Application of the meaning, intent, and spirit of the high school soccer rules is a skill and art that is acquired through experience.  You should work at it constantly. You will quickly find that poor rules application, and lack understanding the “Spirit of the Rules” can easily ruin a game.


The approved signals are critical to using the system of mechanics correctly.  They are not only meant for communication among the Referee Team, but are also meant to let game participants and spectators know what decisions and actions are being taken by the Referee. Understand and accept that the approved signals are mandatory, and use them as specified. Your game will benefit.


Being able to manage and control Interscholastic Soccer Games is a skill that needs to be acquired early, and then maintained and improved over time so that you can achieve the best possible refereeing results in all of your assigned games. While the suggestions we have presented are far from exhaustive, by concentrating on these as a basis for continual improvement should help you reach your personal goals in high school soccer refereeing.