Handling Players and Coaches

by: Lloyd Hisaka, Director, Intramural-Recreational Services, University of Hawaii @ Manoa; Thirty-year High School Football and Basketball Official.

One key concept in successful high school soccer refereeing is that success relies to a great extent on your ability to manage the behavior of the      game participants.  That means players, coaches, and at times other team and      game personnel. Your ability to do so is crucial to becoming a complete and competent Referee. That’s why this subject is so important to your training and development as an Interscholastic Soccer Referee.  It’s one of the bases of successful performance.

A high school soccer Referee is a manager. Management deals with people.  You, as a Referee, need to learn the elements of managing people. How we actually deal with people varies from Referee to Referee. Outward actions may differ from what we feel inside.

This article discusses three major techniques and factors for the high school soccer Referee to consider when dealing with player and coach behavior problems: Verbal Communications, Non-verbal Communications, and Mutual Respect.


Verbal Communications include the spoken word. Here the choice of words is important. Some words tend to calm behavior in others. Some words incite further misbehavior in others. You need to choose words that avoid confrontations or that do not risk demeaning the person you address. If you are trying to control behavior, the last thing wanted is to incite more misbehavior.

How you say things also has an effect.  Humor can be used, but in a careful and limited manner, to try to diffuse an excited individual.  However, you must – through your own experience – feel that you know how to use humor effectively.  Not all Referees have that ability. Also, a scolding or demeaning manner is counter-productive when trying to control behavior. Choice of words that inform or advise works better.

The volume at which the words are spoken also has an effect. Your objective is to promote calm and composure in others. A soft tone suggests your personal control, Your volume should be loud enough to communicate but not so loud as to confront or to incite. Loudness tends to convey anger and to incite.

Some officials develop irritating characteristics. Don’t be one of them. As one example, don’t shout or raise your voice at players or coaches to intimidate or argue. Assuming that you don’t like to be shouted at, then don’t shout at someone else. You can be firm with a normal voice. This technique will do wonders in helping reduce the pressure of competitive stress during the game. Shouting indicates a loss of control, not only of one’s self, but also of the contest. Avoid shouting at players and coaches.

There should be no problem in answering reasonable questions. Treat coaches and players in a courteous way. If they ask what you consider is a reasonable question in a reasonable way, answer them politely. Their reaction should remain reasonable.  However, if a player or coach gets your ear by saying: “Hey Ref, I want to ask you something” and then starts “telling you off”, then interrupt and remind them of the reason for the discussion.  Be firm, but relaxed.  Do not discuss your discretionary decisions.  Since they are subjective and based mainly on your opinion, little can be resolved during a discussion in the middle of a game.

Choose your words wisely. Don’t appear to threaten a coach or player when verbally warning them of the possible consequences of misbehavior. This will only put them on the defensive. More importantly, you will have placed yourself on the spot. If you feel a situation is serious enough to warrant an action such as a caution, then it is serious enough to penalize by that action without invoking a verbal warning. Obviously some things you say will be a form of advice or verbal warning about a possible penalty, but using the proper words can make it subtle.

Listening is part of verbal communications. Learn to be a good listener! Let coaches and players have their say, within reasonable, acceptable behavior limits. When talking to coaches or players, also be aware of your body language and try to keep it from causing your message to appear negative. Be careful how you use hand or arm gestures when dealing with player or coach behavior.  Some gestures could well be misunderstood and appear threatening.

When possible, acknowledge questions from coaches and players as briefly as possible. Be polite and civil, without letting the process become a discussion. Certainly do not raise your voice when speaking to participants. This could generate a negative reaction.


Non verbal communications can similarly promote calm and composure in others or, if misused in a negative fashion, either incite or confront.

Non-verbal communications include: your body language (which should be non-threatening), your posture (which should suggest your confidence), your physical appearance (which should always be professional), the gestures you might use (which should not seem to threaten or intimidate) and your facial expressions (which should portray your quiet but firm assurance in your actions.)

Spatial relationships between the Referee and participants being addressed are important.

You’ve probably heard about avoiding “getting into another’s space.” Simply put, you need not get “face-to-face” or “nose-to-nose” with someone you are addressing about behavior. On a soccer field other players or team personnel may be nearby enough to overhear and be affected by how you conduct yourself.  That’s why Referees are advised to draw the problem player, coach or other team participant away from others on the field so as to confine the communication to the individual concerned.

Another technique to consider is to apply common sense in how to use your authority. Your Referee uniform does not grant immunity from having to take a little criticism. It’s part of officiating, so plan on it. However, do set limits on how much and in what manner you will allow it, and stick to the limits you set for the participants. In particular, discuss this with successful colleagues at every opportunity so that you can learn how to set successful, common-sense behavior limits in a game.

Try not to be overly strict. Do try to use a sensible approach to controlling behavior. If a coach is on your back, but not enough to warrant a penalty action, then stay away from the coach for a bit to see if it passes. This is especially true during time outs and half-time. Standing near an unhappy coach during play, just to “show him or her”, may tend to further      tensions, while a short time away from that area to see if the harassing abates may be useful.  Remember, if the problem persists or worsens you do have all the authority needed to deal with any behavior problem.

Showing confidence by your words and actions is a good asset. However, cockiness has absolutely no place in      officiating. Your objective is to exude confidence. Your presence should command respect from all participants. As in any walk of life, appearance, manner, and voice determine how you are accepted. Try to present a proper professional and assured image.

At all times stay cool. Your purpose is to establish a calm and controlled behavioral environment for the game. Nervous or edgy officials are easily spotted by coaches and players. As an example, avidly chewing gum, pacing around, or displaying a wide range of emotions during a contest will serve to make you appear vulnerable to the pressure.


Mutual respect may well be the best we can hope for as Referees (per Dr. Ralph Swearingin, Jr.)

It comes from a professional relationship between the Referee and the teams.

Trying to be either a “Buddy” or “Enemy” personalizes the relationship. You are a “Buddy” to the coach or player only until the game goes against him or her, then you are an “Enemy”.

Mutual respect more often comes from understanding each others responsibilities. It’s important for you to try to learn and understand the motivation of coaches and players.

Part of understanding is if you make a mistake, admit and – if possible – rectify it. However, never violate the rules of the game in order to do so. Also, don’t always insist on having the last word. That’s sometimes not appropriate or helpful.

Keeping your own demeanor and behavior under control when everything around      you may be chaotic is something you must develop and practice. Be both professional and approachable.


Interscholastic Soccer Referees are essentially managers of people. In soccer the behavior of players and team personnel are your management concern. Successful refereeing depends on your ability to manage participant behavior. Communications and mutual respect are keys.

Verbal communications play an important part. Be concerned about what you say to coaches and players, and how you say it. Learn to listen! Use language that helps calm behavior. Keep an even, controlled volume and tone when addressing participants. Sound confident. Answer reasonable questions, but don’t engage in discussions.

Non verbal communications play another important part. Your body language must be positive and show confidence. Use hand or arm gestures with great care so that they are not seen as threatening. When dealing with players and coaches be constantly aware that spatial relationships are important. Avoid appearing to confront. You use of authority requires common sense.

Consider the positive impact of mutual respect on players and coaches. Respect comes from a professional relationship. That involves understanding the motivation and responsibilities of others. The “Buddy” or “Enemy” approach negatively personalizes the relationship. You can admit a mistake without loss of control. Having the last word is not always necessary. Above all,

learn keep yourself under control even when everything around you may seem chaotic.

Remain professional and approachable.

If, during your Interscholastic Soccer Referee career you concentrate on learning and applying as many of these suggestions as possible, you should move well along to achieving a most satisfactory level of personal excellence.