Pre-game Responsibilities at the Field

By: Bob Sumpter, NISOA


The NFHS Soccer Rules (5-2-1) specify that the Referee Team be at the game site 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the game. However, common sense dictates that the specified 15 minutes is not enough time to go through all of the pre-game tasks that the Referee Team should complete in order to prepare properly for the game to take place.

Further, NFHS Rule 5-1-2 states that: “The jurisdiction of the Officials’ shall begin 15 minutes prior to the start of the game scheduled time, or as required by your league, conference, or state association.“ However, it’s also common sense tat the Referee Team does not make the mistake of believing that because Referee jurisdiction in the high school game officially begins 15 minutes before the start of the game, that you can assume you only need those 15 minutes to complete all of the pre-game duties for which the Referee Team is responsible.

There is a set of five very important tasks you need to complete before the beginning of every game that will require more than 15 minutes to complete properly. These five tasks include: (1) the pre-game Referee Team Briefing; (2) the pre-game inspections by the Referee Team of field, game balls, player eligibility, and player equipment; (3) a meeting with the field manager; (4) briefings for the Scorer, Timer, and Ball Holders; and (5) the pre-game coin toss, including the briefing about good sportsmanship and the review of any pertinent rules.

NISOA advises that a Referee Team arrive at the field at least 30 to 45 minutes before game time. That much time is needed to complete the needed pre-game tasks.

Task 1, the Referee Team Briefing

The first task is to conduct a pre-game briefing of the Referee Team. That means going over the key points of the system of mechanics you will be using for that game, and reinforcing the cooperative procedures that will make your interaction as a Referee Team most successful for that game. The length and depth of this briefing should stress the importance of cooperation, along with clear and prompt communication between Referee and Assistant Referees on all critical game events. Most Referee Team Briefings review handling on-field infringements and confrontations, missed signals, offside alertness and responses, and violations when the Referee is unsighted or the occurrence is behind play.

Also important is to assign responsibilities to: count the number of players on the field for each team after every substitution period, and to record cautions and disqualifications for each team.

If the Referee and Assistants have officiated as a team before, then the briefing can probably be more directed at those procedures and mechanics the team has found to be most important in past games. If the Referee Team members are not familiar with each others’ capabilities, the briefing should probably best cover more of the mechanics in some detail.

Finally, if the Referee Team members have traveled together to the game site and had the opportunity to go over the mechanics, as well as to share whatever experiences they have had with the competing team tactics and styles of play, then the last-minute reminders during pre-game time at the field can be shortened.

Task 2, Inspections.

A second task is to make a number of inspections. One inspection is of the field, its measurements, markings, equipment, and game conditions. Even though most high school games are conducted in stadiums where professional technicians prepare the field and equipment to high school specifications, it is an essential practice for the Referee Team to conduct its own pre-game inspection of the field. Every so often some field or equipment deficit pops up in spite of the best efforts of the schools concerned, and the safety of the student-athletes on the competing teams is involved. Only by conducting a complete field inspection before each game can the Referee Team help avoid possible unforeseen problems.

As one example, have you ever found that, upon your inspection, the bottom of a goal net has somehow become loosened along either the right or left side of the goal from the pegs that hold its lower edge to the ground? Were that not caught and corrected by your Referee Team before the game begins, it could result in a mis-call either for or against a proper goal during the game.

Another inspection needed is of the game balls which, although seemingly routine, does serve to make sure nothing unforeseen takes place. If you’ve refereed for a while, you probably have come across one or more instances when one of the game balls is incorrectly inflated because of loss of air since it was last used.

Yet another inspection is of the eligible player rosters. This is important to verify the eligibility of players to participate, and to provide for a complete, official record of the game and participants. This is the time to remind the eams to make sure all possible eligible players are listed.

And another task is to inspect player equipment. Here the all-important issue is player safety. While the Coach of each team must specify to you that the players are properly and legally equipped, remember that once the game begins it will be up to the Referee Team to spot and see that any equipment deficit is corrected. If you are able to spot a player equipment deficit before the game begins, you can avoid the problems and game interference that occurs when problems arise during play.

Task 3, Meet with Filed Manager(s)

The third task is to comply with a recent rule change that requires you to meet with the field (or stadium) manager(s). Your previous inspection of the field and its equipment should take into account the information exchanged during this meeting with the field manager(s). This is the time to resolve any problems.

The NFHS suggests that the host school should develop a game management plan. Game managers should meet with Referees prior to the game and discuss: field conditions and equipment, unusual conditions, security, end-of-game procedures, game fees (if applicable), and the officials’ area. All these are important for the Referee Team to be familiar with at the game.

All of these are important to the successful conduct of each game played, and should be clearly understood by the Referee Team. Make sure that as part of your pre-game duties you ask to meet with the school’s game manager(s).

Task 4, Brief the Scorer, Timer, and Ball Holders.

A fourth task is to conduct a short instructional briefing for the Scorer, Timer, and Ball Holders. Here, you want to stress the procedures that might cause problems if not followed correctly.

Make sure to remind the Scorer not to signal for a substitution until the substitutes have reported and are ready to enter the field when signaled. Also stress the importance of recording the correct player uniform numbers for cautions and disqualifications, as well as the correct uniform numbers for goal scorers.

The Timer should be reminded of the signal used by the Referee to stop the clock. Also remind the Timer of the 10-second countdown procedure at the end of each period of play.

Pay special attention to giving brief and clear instruction to ball holders. It is not uncommon that some ball-holders do not recognize when a ball becomes out of play. A brief moment to explain this is well spent. Try to stress to the Ball Holders the important role they pay in keeping the game moving and in maximizing actual playing time.

Task 5, Pre-game Coin Toss.

The fifth task is to meet with the team Coaches and Captains to address good sportsmanship and to conduct a coin toss. This should be the last of the five pre-game tasks, and should be conducted just before the scheduled starting time of the game, and before any special game-opening ceremonies such as the National Anthem, and the introduction of game guests or the teams.

When you have a pre-game meeting as this rule prescribes, it is NOT a good idea for a Referee to spend a lot of time on the pre-game conference with coaches and captains.

Brevity is best. The more information you try to get across, the less will be retained by the persons being addressed. Why is this so? I’m sure you have observed that in the moments before a game, players in particular as well as coaches will be mentally concentrating on the upcoming contest, and therefore have a limit on what they can absorb from any comments you make.

A good guideline is for you to first introduce the Referee Team to the Coaches and Captains, then very briefly and in turn: briefly review the need for good sportsmanship, then ask the coaches about player equipment, then answer any questions that might be asked, and then conduct the coin toss.

A suggestion about how to address good sportsmanship is in order, particularly for those of you who might want some advice about what and how to do so.

In addressing the matter of sportsmanship as required in the NFHS Rules, keep it short, firm, and direct. In this part of the pre-game discussion, emphasize three key thoughts, using short, firm statements of the following issues. You can use your own words, or try to use the following suggested short statement. A suggested format could be as follows: “The Coach plays an important role in keeping fair play and sportsmanship at the heart of this game. The educational institutions that sponsor these teams and this game want to insure a game that positively influences the development in student athletes of their sense of fair play. That is the shared responsibilities of us all. Our Referee Team is fully prepared and committed to enforce all rules prohibiting and punishing unfair play and misconduct.”

Once this part of the pre-game meeting with Coaches and Captains is completed, go on to ask if anyone has any questions. If any are posed, reply briefly and in a way to give correct information, but also to discourage prolonged discussion.

Next, conduct the coin toss, as required in Rule 5-2-d-3.

A Final Note.

Since these 5 Referee Team Pre-game Tasks will surely take up the NISOA-recommended 30 minutes to complete, you will devise and follow your own time schedule at each assigned game so that each of the five tasks is completed thoroughly and properly.

The personal time schedule you have developed for the completion of all of the pre-game tasks by the Referee Team should be constructed so that this last Task 5 begins no later than five minutes before the scheduled starting time of the game.

It might be an interesting exercise to consider going with a colleague or two to a high school soccer field when there is no activity, walking through and timing each of the five pre-game tasks ((including actually going through briefings, meetings, and instructions). This would allow you to gauge how much actual time is needed, and then to develop a reliable personal pre-game time schedule that you can follow at each assigned game.


Each of these required duties deserves an adequate amount of time to do correctly and thoroughly. You should not skip any of these important pre-game tasks. Many unnecessary game problems can be avoided by thorough pre-game preparations by the Referee Team. A complete and successful pre-game routine by the Referee Team will go a long way to insure a successful game.