11 Tips for Dealing with Bad Referees

Dealing with bad referees can be frustrating. They make bad calls and miss others. Sometimes it feels like they are against us and we can’t catch a break.

Most coaches’ initial reaction is to yell, scream, and cause a ruckus to defend their team, which feels right at the moment. But if you aren’t careful, you might find yourself walking off the field before the game is over. Or you lose focus of the game. This isn’t ideal for you or your team. 

Having a game plan before you step on the pitch can help avoid a negative situation. Plan ahead and reduce your stress during the game when a bad referee comes your way.  

Let’s go over tips for handling a bad ref to put you in the best position to succeed when your team faces this unfortunate scenario. Everyone does. It is apart of the game.

Master the Rules

Know the rules inside and out. This won’t only make you a more effective communicator with referees; it will make you a more effective coach with your players. Once you know the rules of the game, you can speak with confidence and better manage the game with your team and the officials. 

Many youth sports coaches haven’t spent enough time with rules to understand what is a penalty and what is fair play. It is easy to think that the refs are against you when you don’t know where to start. 

When does the opposing team get awarded an indirect kick versus a direct kick? All of this and more can be learned from the rules of the game. Use FIFA’s Laws of the Game to brush up on any weak areas of your rule understanding.

Encourage Good Behavior

When the ref makes a good call. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that every coach should use. People want recognition and appreciation. Referees rarely get appreciated. Everyone wants to yell or express a negative opinion towards them. When was the last time you heard someone say that the officiating was great during a sporting event? It never happens.

I’m not suggesting that you have to suck up to them. It won’t help. But, everyone can use a bit of positivity. As Dale Carnegie said in his timeless book How to Win Friends and Influence People, make other people feel important and do it sincerely. People have bad days often and referees are no different. 

Ask Questions, Don’t Use Statements

Referees are taught to not engage statements. They ignore them because they view a statement as a form of venting. If they engage, they can get in a disagreement. Their main focus should be on the game. The best way to engage a referee is to ask questions. This prompts them to respond. Otherwise, they think you are complaining out loud and it doesn’t require a response. 

Great coaches know that it’s much easier to have a respectful exchange when there is a pointed question. People don’t enjoy whiners. Don’t be a whiner. If you have something to say, say it. But, speak with a purpose. Referees are more likely to give you a response.

Here are a few questions to ask a referee:

  • What can we do better to get that call?
  • Could you watch No. 43 for offside?
  • Can you help me understand how that was a penalty?

Don’t Raise Your Voice

Raising your voice is one of the worst ways to engage with the referee. No one enjoys getting yelled at in front of others. If referees are anything like me, I shut down when people yell at me. I stop listening or get defensive. When you raise your voice, you increase the chance of an argument or getting thrown out of the game.

Coaches must control their emotions during close or bad calls. The goal is to work with the referee even if they are missing calls. No one views themselves as the bad guy. Everyone thinks they are doing their best.

Approach the referee in a calm, collected voice and you will encourage conversation. When you start from a place of openness, the referee will likely reciprocate. At this point, you can discuss any issues and get answers to your questions.

Be Kind

This is simple. There is a tendency to keep your voice low but still talk in a demeaning tone especially when you feel someone wronged you. Communication is more than the spoken word. It includes body language and tonality. While you shouldn’t raise your voice, speak with an assertive but respectful tone. 

Speaking with the ref won’t reverse the initial call. But, you can direct their attention to a different part of the game which can play to your benefit. For instance, you can say the opponent’s attacker is committing an off the ball foul and the referee should pay attention to it. 

Don’t use profanity. It is a quick way to get into disagreements with parents, referees and the like. It is easiest to not use it.

Chat with referees before the game and get to know them. Shake their hand. Get to know them on a personal level. Call them by their names instead of ref. The most powerful word in any language is someone’s name. Remember that for a better response. Treat the game as a professional would and you are likely to get professional treatment. People are more likely to be kind to people they have a prior relationship to. 

Another useful tip within being kind is to be lighthearted. Youth sports are supposed to be fun. No reason to pout your way through a game. Have a sense of humor when interacting with the refs, everyone enjoys being around someone who is enjoying themselves.

Focus on Your Role

Remember, you are a coach. If you get hung up dealing with the ref, you are not doing your job. The role of a coach is to develop players to their fullest potential and direct your players to victory. Communicating with the referee is a part of the game. No one is denying that. However, once you have made your point focus back on coaching your players. 

Every moment you are engaging with anyone outside of your team, you are taking away time from your players. During games, if one thing doesn’t go our way, it can affect us for a long period of time. Let it go and focus on what you can control, which is being a great coach to your players.

Don’t Insult or Name Call

This goes without saying but I have witnessed it on too many occasions. Coaches are too emotionally invested in the outcome of their team that they let their guard down. When this happens, it is best to walk away until you are in a better headspace. Once people get offended, it is hard to change their opinion of you.

Additionally, name-calling is one of the quickest ways to get removed from the game. Referees are taught to enforce and keep order throughout the match. This includes ejection. At the youth level, you might be the only coach and it could cause the game to end. This is embarrassing for everyone involved and not a good look for your players. Remember the goal is to have fun, win games, and develop players. 

If games are so intense that you verbally insult someone, ask yourself a few questions. 

  • What is causing the anger?
  • Can I redirect this energy into a more productive use?
  • Am I taking the game too seriously?
  • What steps can I take to avoid this in the future?

This might be a sign that you are coaching for your own benefit more than your players. Several people have alternative motivations for youth sports. Some want to impress their friends and brag to their family. This can negatively affect the playing experience of all of those involved. 

Another way to help to avoid name-calling is not using the word “you”. Comment on the game but the moment you make it personal is the opportunity for the ref to call a penalty. There is a large difference between observation and criticism. 

Be Empathetic 

Referees are human too. They make mistakes. They have personal lives outside of the game. Sometimes we have bad days or have a family issue at home. Understand that no game will be perfect. Calls will be missed. The same can be said of your coaching performance. It won’t ever be perfect. You will make mistakes and you hope the parents and players will have a bit of grace. The same can be said of your players and officials. 

In youth sports, referees can be teenagers or young adults. There isn’t a long line at the referee school! Therefore, young adults aren’t always the most confident in their decisions. They are unsure of themselves. Add in a few yelling parents and coaches, and it is the perfect recipe for a stressful environment. Stress doesn’t lead to better game calling. It does the opposite. 

If more coaches would put themselves in the shoes of the referees, they would realize they are in similar situations. This, in turn, would allow better game management for the players. There will be points in the game when the coach has a better view of the field than the referee. A referee can’t be everywhere at once. Calls will be missed as a result.

And vice versa, there will be points in the game when the referee will have a better angle on the play than you will. Trust that the ref is being fair and impartial. You will miss things as well. 

Don’t Allow Players to Argue

Players should focus on the game. Pleading their case with the refs doesn’t work. If a bad play is called, tell your players to focus ahead instead of arguing with the ref. Referees are trained to keep the calls on the field. As a coach, it is your job to manage the relationship between your players and the referee. Take the responsibility away from the players in order to avoid any player and referee situation. 

The player focus is best suited on the game. Getting wound up on a call in the 1st half doesn’t help the team win the 2nd half. Focus on the things you can control. This is a vital lesson for young players to master. We all know the importance of self-control. 

If you find your players are too upset on a particular call to focus on the game, call a timeout. This solves a couple of purposes. Give players a moment to reset and refocus on the game. Also, it allows them to vent and speak their mind. This reset gets everyone back on track. 

Be Respectful of Referee’s Time

If the ref is across the field, yelling at them won’t help your issue. Don’t run onto the field when a call is missed. All this can lead to getting thrown out of the game. Be respectful of their space. 

The main job of the ref is to maintain order during the game. Every time you need to discuss something with him or her you take their focus away from the primary job at hand. Therefore, be mindful of when you approach a referee. For instance, if an attacker is on a fast break to goal, it isn’t the best time to bring up the slide tackle from a few minutes ago. Wait for lull moment to discuss with the officials such as a ball goes out of bounds, a substitution, or half-time.

It might not always be appropriate to wait until a break before speaking especially in soccer when the clock keeps on running. As long as you are considerate of approaching the ref, they are more open to responding. Just remember they might not be able to respond right away. 

Set the Example

Players look up to and respect the coach to lead them. A coach sets the example on how to behave during a game. Part of being a coach is to teach the players’ life skills such as self-control especially during times of adversity. It is easy to have self-control when nothing is going wrong.

The best way to teach these principles is through example. Kids learn through mimicking and mirroring. This is how they learn throughout childhood. Set the prime example of how to interact with the official and they will follow suit.

Furthermore, we want to be a good role model to the parents. Parents are watching your behavior on the sidelines. If they see we are yelling and causing a commotion, they will chime in. Speak with parents before the season starts on sideline rules and behavior and enforce it. Keep control by setting the standard.

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