The beleaguered sports referee

‘Zebras’ are often the target of sports  enthusiasts’ scorn

By Barbara Pierce

referee“I love this part!” my granddaughter Crystal exclaimed to me with a big smile, then gave a loud blast on her whistle. “Out of bounds!” she called to the volleyball players, with a confidence in her voice that I had never heard.

High school senior Crystal is taking a sports officiating class. She invited me to watch a volleyball game where she would be the student referee.

As I watched, I was happy to see a side of her emerging that I had never seen. Normally shy and hanging back, now she was out there, making the calls, her coach by her side, encouraging her. It seems that wearing the uniform and being expected to act in a certain way was working for her.

She is learning so much more than how to call fouls and the rules of the gain. Learning much more than gaining confidence. She is learning valuable life lessons both on the court or field and off.

“Life lessons can be found in the oddest places, like the well-manicured soccer fields that are my domain most weekends,” says an unnamed youth coach referee online. “It’s a shame the behavior of the parents, coaches, and players who populate these fields aren’t as well-manicured. More often than not, the opposite is true.

“They are conditioned to dislike me. But that’s precisely the reason I’ve learned lessons that will help me in all facets of life. Some are obvious: teamwork, leadership, nerve, certitude and daring. It taught me the value of hard work, responsibility, grit, and, most of all, standing firm when I’m all alone.”

“As a soccer referee, it’s been an adventure in learning,” says George Gately online at “What began as a way to get exercise and earn extra dollars has been a virtual advanced degree in human relations. It’s benefited every area of my life. Lessons on the exercise of authority, handling mistakes, teamwork, human nature and life goals have been the unanticipated perquisites of refereeing.”

Serving as a referee means learning many things — most apply not just to sports, but also to life. From Gately and others, here are some of the life lessons that Crystal will be learning:

— Be flexible. A good referee needs to adapt to the day’s game. Remain flexible and embrace change. You can’t control the unexpected. Be prepared to expect the unexpected.

Deal with own mistakes

— Sometimes you’re wrong. Mistakes happen; handle them quickly. Every referee notches a few in every game. Be happy if you walk away with few and minor mistakes. Major mistakes haunt good referees for weeks. Big or small, mistakes are the vehicles that can carry you to the next level.

— Be accountable, evaluate, decide and move on. Own up to your mistakes.

— Evaluate the error quickly. Don’t become fixated on it and don’t allow it to contaminate the game. Answer the questions, “What happened?” and “Why did it happen?” Decide on a simple strategy to avoid repeating the same mistake and move on.

Everyone else wants to put it behind them. Don’t be the one who keeps it alive. Whatever you do, don’t try to “even the score” by a misguided make-up call.

— Don’t dwell on any mistake. That leads to more, and greater, errors.

— Not everybody will like what you decide. You can’t please everybody, and in a game, somebody is going to be angry at your decision. Parents, coaches, or players often disagree with calls.

Buy England vs Austria Women’s tickets and watch the players, you’ll see that some of them can get quite nasty and irate. Was it offside or not? Was it a foul or not? Despite others’ “perspectives” on important referee tasks like foul recognition, player management, game flow and conflict management, the game must go on.

— Remember that it’s not about you. Few of us enjoy being screamed and cursed at. However, such is the fate of sports officials. Not to please everyone, or to make others happy, or to justify every decision, but to ensure a safe, fair, enjoyable game is the referee’s job. Enforcing the rules is the best method available to that end.

Just because people are screaming, criticizing or calling into question your native intelligence does not mean you are doing poorly. In fact, it may mean just the opposite.

— Expect disagreement from time to time, but don’t look for it. Try to get comfortable with the discomfort, realizing it’s a necessary part of being in charge of the game.

— Find a way to have fun. Take what you do seriously, but never take yourself seriously. There is very little that is worth doing if you’re not having fun. Having fun needs to be an important part of your life.

• Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at