Bench Control

By: Bill Wagner, NISOA National Clinician, NISOA National Assessor, Florida

Why was a team area mandated by the rules of the game? How many were officiating during the time before the team area became part of the rules? Those officials may recall what life was like during that time. The Assistant Referee (then called Linesman) routinely had to run around or through some member of the coaching staff who was positioned along the touchline. If not the coaching staff, then a substitute or trainer would be so engrossed in the game that they would be in the way.  Most of the time a few words from the Assistant Referee moved folks back toward the team bench momentarily. It would usually last until the next breakaway by their team. Once again the Assistant Referee would have to maneuver through a maze to keep up with the attack.

While Assistant Referees had to contend with bench personnel encroaching toward the touchline they also had to contend with the commentary regarding the referee’s decisions. How many of you have heard, “What was that call?” or “Would you have called it that way?” or “I know you could have gotten that call right.” This type of behavior seems innocent enough, but quite often it was a not so subtle attempt to distract the Assistant Referee from their duties. I can remember those days as if it were yesterday.

Training of officials during this time period recognized that distractions could be encountered while performing their duties on the touchline nearest the team benches. Officials were instructed to maintain their position but to avoid collisions. They were instructed to be respectful of coaches but avoid being caught up in conversations with bench personnel. There were also times when additional help might be needed to maintain control over bench personnel. The actions of bench personnel and bench control were a topic for pre-game conferences. Discussions during the halftime interval might also include behavior of the bench personnel. More than once the game was terminated because the personnel from the bench became completely out of control and chaos erupted on the field of play.

The NCAA, along with other soccer rulemaking bodies for the United States, incorporate changes into the rules in order to improve the game. A rules change addressed how to manage the behavior of bench personnel. The NCAA states in Rule 1.12.1 that “There shall be a coaching and team area.” The dimensions of the coaching and team areas are defined in Rule 1.12.2.  The FIFA Laws of the Game at International Football Association Board Decision 1 to Law 1 mentions that a stadium may provide for a technical area where bench personnel are to remain during the game. The requirements for a technical area are contained in a section called The Technical Area. The purpose of defining the coaching or team area or the technical area is to attempt to control the behavior of personnel who are participants but not presently on the field of play.

The NCAA rule requires that coaches, players, and bench personnel must remain inside their coaching or team area. An exception is granted to players who are warming up prior to entering the field of play. The International governing body specifies that bench personnel remain in the technical area but does allow for a single individual to stand and provide tactical instructions and then return to the technical area. Both bodies allow for trainers or medical personnel to leave the team area to attend to an injured player on the field of play provided the referee gives permission. The rules clearly require team personnel who are not currently participating on the field of play to remain in the coaching and team area or the technical area and to behave in a responsible manner at all times.

The official ultimately responsible for enforcing the rules is the referee. Unfortunately, the referee is often required to be in locations other than nearby the coaching or team areas. For this reason, the rules also provide for Assistant Referees whose duties include assisting the referee in the control of the game by indicating, among other things, breaches of the rules the referee may not have seen. The rules also permit the assignment of Alternate Officials at the discretion of either the conference or an institution. Among the duties that the rules assign to the Alternate Official, when utilized, is assisting in the control of bench personnel. The rules place responsibility for control of the game on the officials and set forth that an aspect of game control can include bench personnel who are subject to the jurisdiction of the referee. Because of recommended positioning of the officials, much of the responsibility for control of bench personnel may fall to either the Assistant Referee assigned to the side of the field where the coaching or team area is located or to the Alternate Official who is generally positioned between the two coaching or team areas.

Control of a soccer game requires considerable judgment and people skills. Coaches have a vested interest in what is happening on the field and quite often get caught up in the heat of the moment. Officials close to the coaching or team area need to recognize when a quiet word or simply changing their own position will send the message that a change in behavior of bench personnel is needed. These actions of the official can be subtle yet effective. The objective is to control the behaviors, and not create additional problems by seeming to upstage coaches and draw attention to what may simply be natural excitement that arises during a game. On the other hand, irresponsible behavior on the part of coaches or other bench personnel can not be ignored. Once the behavior crosses the line, the officials must take action. Those closest to the team area are the first line of control. The behavior must be addressed verbally and those violating the rules must be advised to regain proper decorum and, if the individual is outside the prescribed coaching or team area, to return immediately.

The officiating team needs to discuss bench control during the pre-game conference. This is the means by which responsibility can be delegated to the Assistant Referee and Alternate Official, if one is assigned. Most referees will be busy enough with on field responsibilities and will delegate some responsibility for bench control to the Assistant Referee or Alternate Official. How to gain the referee’s attention for help with bench control is a logical topic for the pre-game conference.  Whether the agreed method involves raising the flag by the Assistant Referee, verbally calling the referee, or some other signal, the signal must be employed if a situation requires the referee to reestablish control within the coaching and team area.  Know how to get the referee’s attention before the game begins.  When you actually need to communicate with the referee is not the time to wish you had a prearranged signal.

The Assistant Referee or Alternate Official must recognize when their efforts to assist the referee in controlling bench personnel have become ineffective. At that point communication with the referee is critical to gaining control of the situation. The referee must ultimately become involved because the rules place responsibility for their enforcement on the shoulders of the referee. Along with this responsibility comes the necessary authority. The NCAA rule 12.19 governs the coaching and team area restrictions. Rule 12.19.1 mandates that “Coaches, players and bench personnel shall remain inside their respective coaching and team areas.” Unless one of the exceptions applies, the penalty for a violation is Caution or eject as appropriate and restart play by an indirect free kick from the location of the ball (if in play) at the time of the infraction. Exception: Nearest point outside goal area if ball was in goal area when infraction occurred. Rule 12.19.2 addresses the coaching from the touch lines. The penalty for a violation of this rule – Upon a first occurrence, the referee shall instruct the coach to return to the coaching and team area. On the second infraction, a caution shall be issued. On the third occurrence, an ejection shall be issued. (Emphasis added)

The rules are quite clear. Coaches and other team personnel not participating on the field are to remain in their respective coaching or team areas. Assistant Referees or Alternate Officials are assigned responsibility to assist the referee in maintaining a desired degree of control and decorum within the coaching or team areas. If these officials are unable to do so, the referee must become involved. Once the referee’s involvement in bench control becomes necessary, the NCAA makes it quite clear what the mandatory penalties will be.

Remember that the bench personnel should be allowed to be enthusiastic, supportive of their teammates on the field, and enjoy the game. Whenever their behavior becomes inappropriate or irresponsible, subtle reminders should be employed at first. Failure to respond requires stronger measures by the appropriate member of the officiating team. Once the referee has been drawn into the situation, the rules must be enforced. To do any less brings the game into disrepute and can spoil it for participants and spectators alike.