To Caution, or Not to Caution in the High School Game?

By: Bob Sumpter, NISOA

Some Interscholastic Referees are often criticized for issuing too many cautions; some others are criticized for not issuing cautions often enough. To be fair, both criticisms at times may be correct, but probably not all the time. Much of the criticism is based on the assumption that the Referee can always choose to either issue a caution, or choose not to do so. This assumption is only partially valid.

Most Referees learn that the decision to caution in some cases is clear cut, and relies on a particular act being observed without any other judgment factors having to be applied in making that decision.  These types of cautions can be described as “mandatory” cautions (my term).  The mere observation of a particular act requires that the caution be administered.

However, there are a number of instances where acts that are supposed to be cautioned by the Referee requires the Referee to apply discretion in order to decide if the act meets the criteria described in the NFHS Soccer Rules Book to merit a caution. These can be described as “discretionary” cautions (my term). Here, the nature and intent of each act has to be determined as unfair and requiring the caution.

Even a casual reading of the NFHS Soccer Rules Book quickly shows that there is a difference in the judgment required of the Referee between “mandatory” and “discretionary” cautions, when particular acts of misconduct are committed.

If you, as the Referee in an interscholastic soccer game, are to make the correct decisions, you need to think about these issues and adopt a consistent approach to handling this behavior and game control responsibility you exercise.

Mandatory Cautions

So, let’s begin by discussing my term “mandatory” cautions. This group of acts includes those that require a caution if merely observed by the Referee.  Using the 2007 NFHS Soccer Rules Book as the basis for this list, you can begin to identify the two groups of acts and perhaps be able to handle them in a more effective and consistent way in your future games. Rule book examples for what I suggest are “mandatory” cautions follow.

“The head coach shall receive the first caution for an illegally equipped player” (R4-3, 12-8-4, and R3-3-2-b-1) This is a situation that is most often based on what you find in your pre-game player equipment inspection. (Of course, on occasion, you might not observe illegal equipment until sometime into the game.) The rule is specific about both required and illegal equipment.

“Entering or leaving the field of play without the permission of an official.” (R12-8-1) Such an act can be observed by any of the Referee team.  The exception to the required caution is, of course, “except through the normal course of play.”

“Any incidental use of vulgar or profane language.” (R12-8 1)Here, the judgment is primarily on the word “incidental.” The language must be heard to be punished.

“Any use of video or audio communication by players or other persons to assist in coaching during the game.” (R12-8-1) Again, this is an act that can be both observed and heard. The rules define specific devices.

“Coaching outside the team area.” (i.e., unsporting conduct – R12-8-1-f-1). Also indicated in R1-5-3 as “coaches, bench  personnel, and team members shall be restricted to the team area.” This is another incident based on observation: are they outside the area?

“Holding a shirt, short, etc.” (i.e., unsporting conduct – R12-8-1-f-3) If seen, it is to be penalized! This unfair act is becoming more and more frequently observed in games. Unless a clear advantage is observed, it should be dealt with strictly.

“Encroachment” (i.e., unsporting conduct – R12-8-1-f-5) Ten yards is ten yards! The successful Referee must learn to enforce this distance rigidly in order not to encourage unfair interference with play by an offending team.

“Use of tobacco products (by participants)” (R12-8-1-g). This is one of the strict policies of NFHS for all interscholastic sports.

When you consider that all of the above acts that require a “mandatory” caution can be easily observed or heard by the Referee, consistently enforcing and penalizing with the necessary caution should come more easily to the Referee. The more consistently enforced, the better the game control result.

Discretionary Cautions

Now we consider the “discretionary” cautions. The following acts requiring caution do involve applying some degree of judgment by the Referee in determining that they meet the intended criteria of misconduct specified in the rules.

In each of these cases, if your game control results are not consistently positive in applying your power to caution, it’s probably because you need to better understand the subjective criteria you need to apply in judging whether or not each of these acts are to be cautioned. You should make sure to ask for and get decision-making guidance from your local Interscholastic Referee Chapter; your local certified Clinician, Assessor, or Interpreter; your assigned Mentor; your State High School Athletic Association; and/or as needed, the NFHS Soccer Rules Interpreter. Also, make sure to observe how effectively your Referee colleagues handle discretionary caution offenses in their games, and take the opportunity to discuss their approaches during your local Interscholastic Soccer Referee meetings to get as many opinions as possible.

“Persistent infringement of any of the rules of the game.” (12-8-1-b) Here, the basic judgment question is “how many times are enough to be persistent?” There are many approaches to making good judgments. Be wise enough to ask for help in defining and recognizing persistent infringement if you need it.

“Dissent – objecting by word of mouth or action to any decision you make during a game.” (R12-8-1-c) This is probably one of the most common types of misconduct, and also one that is least attended to properly by Referees. When not handled properly, it does have a very negative effect on game control and player behavior because once one player gets away with dissent, others quickly learn to try the same misconduct. Be particularly sensitive to this act.

“Unnecessary delay-kicking, throwing the ball away on a free kick, etc.” (Unsporting conduct – R12-8-3-f-2) This act involves unfair time wasting.  The game suffers if not controlled.

“Deliberate verbal tactics.” (Unsporting conduct – R12-8-3-f-4) These may include verbally baiting an opponent, negative interference by calling for a pass when not involved in play or when no where near the play, negative or interfering comments to opponents from the opposing bench, etc,)

“Deliberate handling to stop an attack.” (Unsporting conduct – R12-8-3-f-6) This involves the judgment of when a developing attack is negated by an unfair, deliberate (i.e., intentional) act of handling.

“Deliberate tactical Foul.” (Unsporting conduct – R12-8-3-f-7) Most often a non-violent, non-serious foul against an opponent to take the opponent out of the play.

“Faking an injury.” (Unsporting conduct – R12-8-3-f-8) This unfair tactic is often missed by the Referee Team, and is not always easy to recognize. Many of us have witnessed an apparently injured player suddenly and miraculously recover after play is stopped, or after the opposing team is unfairly penalized for a foul.

“Simulating a foul.” (Unsporting conduct – R12-8-3-f-9) This unfair act is usually referred to as “taking a dive” in order to get an incorrect call by the Referee in favor of the simulator.

“The Coach may be cautioned either for team misconduct or for bench misconduct that cannot be attributed to a specific individual.” (Coach responsibility – R12-8- 4-b) One example is when the Coach fails to stop bench personnel from dissenting or making negative remarks that interfere with the game, and the individuals cannot be correctly identified.


Remember, that the two categories: “mandatory” and “discretionary”, are my terms, and are not cited (as I have done in this article) in the rules. All reasons for caution cited in the NFHS Soccer Rules Book can be said to be mandatory, in that the Referee is required to penalize any participant who commits any of these.

However, as most of us know, deciding whether or not an act of misconduct has occurred is not always a cut-and-dried situation, especially in the “discretionary” category that I have set out. By categorizing and studying the list of caution offenses in the NFHS Soccer Rules Book into “mandatory” and “discretionary” groups, a Referee can perhaps find it easier to recognize each instance when the caution should be effectively invoked as a behavior control technique. The Referee can also pursue finding out how better to judge the more difficult caution offenses.