With the shortage of sports officials in youth sports, now is a great time to become a referee. It would be a shame if our kids lost the opportunity to play the sports they love because there were no referees or umpires to officiate games.
If you’re interested in becoming a youth sports official, remember that it takes dedication. It can be emotionally and physically demanding. But while the job can be frustrating at times, it can also be very gratifying and fun. Here are four basics of being a youth sports referee:
Certification and Training
Policies on game officials depend on the sports league; some don’t require their referees to be certified. However, acquiring certification helps build your credibility as an official, and it may even allow you to charge more for your services. And because accreditation requires training and testing, you expand your knowledge of your role and responsibilities.
Know the Rules of the Game
Know the game inside and out. Don’t rely on the rules as you remember them from when you played in high school or college; the rules may have changed by now. All youth sports leagues should have a book on the game rules. However, it would be wise for you to have a copy to review when needed. And if your learning style is more auditory and visual, there are also videos you can watch that will teach you the rules of the sport.
Have a Pregame Routine
Just like athletes warm up for a game, so should you mentally. Look sharp in a clean uniform. Never rush to a game; arrive early. Meet with the other referees officiating the game. Inspect the playing area for any potential hazards. Meet briefly with the coaches. Ensure your whistle works. Give yourself a pep talk and get ready for a great game between kids who are eager to have fun playing the game they love.
From irate coaches to enraged parents, referees need to be mentally and emotionally prepared for coaches and parents who lose their cool. Not everyone will agree with your call. People are surprised how hot-tempered things can get at a sports event for children. However, when you think about how overprotective some parents can get, you will understand why.
As a sports official, you need to be prepared for parents who take it personally when you call a foul on their kid or coaches who think you made a bad call. You will be booed and called names. Remember that you can’t please everyone. The reality is that there will be times when you will misread a play and get some calls wrong. The best thing you can do is remember your training, know the rules, and ignore the negativity.
When it comes to youth sports, there is no shortage of players. Then why are young athletes losing the opportunity to play? The problem isn’t in the numbers of kids interested in sports but in the number of referees that will officiate their games.
The shortage of referees is alarming. Here are the three reasons why the number of referees in the nation is dwindling:
- Number of Youth Teams on the Rise
The interest in youth sports is on the rise. With the introduction of more games, more kids are joining the fun. There’s even a rise in girls’ participation in sports like soccer and volleyball. We have also been a surge in sports like flag football, tennis, gymnastics, lacrosse, field hockey, and wrestling. And with more players, it means there are now a higher number of teams and games to officiate.
- The Pay’s Not Great
A referee’s pay depends on the league or tournament. How much referees get paid also depends on what position they have on the field. Are they an assistant referee or the center referee?
According to a report by lohud, a part of The USA Today network, officials can take home as much as $1,000 in cash per weekend for working club games that are non-scholastic. However, it’s highly doubtful that public schools can pay that rate, possibly paying as little as $92 – $110. The reality is that public school districts don’t have the financial resources to pay referees more money. That amount can go as low as $75 per assignment if we’re talking about sports on the junior varsity, freshman, and middle school level. As the rate also depends on the age group, center referees have been known to make as little as $40 – $60.
Private schools and well-funded youth sports leagues may be able to pay more. However, with sports being seasonal and people needing more stable means of income, being a referee doesn’t seem to the wisest career path.
- Verbal and Physical Abuse
Even youth sports has its fair share of overzealous fans who yell inappropriate things at the referees and umpires. They call the officials all sorts of names when they don’t agree with the calls. The verbal abuse doesn’t end when the game does. Some people yell things at the refs in the parking lot. Some game officials have even reported being followed home. And if insults weren’t bad enough, there have been reports of game officials who have had things thrown at them or were physically assaulted by disgruntled fans.
The reality of referee emotional and physical beating is so disturbing that in the UK, a national helpline has been launched to support refs who suffer from abuse during matches. And in the US, The Washington Post reports that the cause of the referee shortage is the verbal abuse from both parents and coaches.
Many officials eventually quit, saying the emotional strain and fear for their safety is not worth it. And when you combine lousy pay to the likelihood of being berated and emotionally abused each time you perform your job, it’s not surprising why youth sports is suffering from a shortage of referees.
Youth sports leagues all over the country are experiencing a crisis, and because of it, many young athletes are losing the opportunity to play. It isn’t because there is a lack of players or there are no more venues to play at. It is because there is an alarming shortage of referees willing to officiate the game. And without referees, the games cannot take place.
Gary Musselman, executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association said, “The effects of a referee shortage are many — games are delayed or moved or canceled altogether, and referee crews in sports such as soccer and basketball are trimmed from three to two.”
What is causing this shortage of referees?
Some clubs and leagues say that the problem may be a number of things. With sports programs expanding, there are simply more games than there are referees. Some suggest that it may be conflicts in scheduling, disagreements in pay, and training fees.
However, of all the reasons and theories, the one that has come up the most often is poor sportsmanship and the verbal abuse that many officials experience. And in some cases, it has gone beyond verbal abuse and escalated to physical violence. There was an incident caught on video where an assistant coach ordered two of his players to collide with the referee deliberately.
And there have been reported cases of officials getting ambushed in parking lots after games.
And in two horribly unbelievable cases some years ago, officials in Utah and Michigan were killed by players who punched them.
Referees and umpires took up officiating knowing that verbal abuse would come with the territory. Parents and other spectators hurl all sorts of insults towards officials. Even coaches are known to get right up in the referee’s’ faces to the point that they get thrown out of the game.
Most referees officiate because they love the game and want to give back to the community.
Despite what some may think, referees don’t earn much, and some get paid per game. However, when verbal abuse turns violent and physical, it becomes a matter of common sense to avoid a profession that has potential dangers.
A referee may love the sport, the game, and their community, but a job that where there is no protection from the verbal and psychological abuse or the potential of physical threats hardly seems worth it.
Some might argue that they knew exactly what they were getting into when they decided on a career in officiating, whether full time or as a side job. However, many cannot deny how much the sports environment has changed in just the last decade. With multi-million dollar contracts and athletic scholarships at stake, players, coaches, and parents have become alarmingly more and more aggressive.
Referees who officiate at the youth league level don’t get away unscathed. They experience the verbal abuse just as much from parents and coaches fueled by the win-at-all-costs attitude who think that the youth league is the child’s first step to professional athlete greatness.
What can be done?
Sports organizations need to make referees feel safe again. And the only way to do that is by changing the culture of sports. There was a time when officiating a game came with pride and distinction. Today, there are less and less deciding to take up the profession and with good reason.
At League Network, we always advise our members to remember to thank volunteers they know are doing a great job. After all, volunteers are often what keep a league running. This is especially true in cities where there aren’t a lot of funds to pay for staff and equipment. These volunteers get things done and help raise funds, never asking for anything in return.
Research shows however, that volunteers do get something out of their experience volunteering. While not monetary or tangible, volunteering brings about a lot of benefits. Understanding what those benefits are is crucial in attracting and retaining great volunteers.
Sports volunteers who work directly with the players can improve their fitness alongside their athletes. While we all know less than fit coaches (volunteer and otherwise), being engaged and moving about along with the players can often add a couple hours of light exercise in an otherwise sedentary schedule.
Some leagues pay their referees. Others offer the job as a volunteer position, and there’s almost no better way to get some cardio in than running up and down a soccer field or pacing the sidelines during a football game.
Volunteering is proven to also keep your brain active, reduce depression and increases self-confidence.
Values and Conscience
Volunteer work simply makes you feel good. Talk to any volunteer you meet, and they’ll likely tell you that no matter what they ended up doing, they loved the experience simply because it made them feel like what they were doing was important.
Volunteering can be something of a spiritual experience, or at least one that speaks to your conscience. Being engaged in your community brings you a sense of accomplishment and visible results and a greater sense of connection to others (new friends for example).
Resumes and Applications
If you’re a younger volunteer, your work with a youth sports league can make a glowing addition to any college applications you want to fill out. You don’t have to play sports yourself to use league sports as a valuable reference. Volunteer work of any kind shows a university you’re a passionate, hard-working student.
Volunteer work is also great to put on job resumes and expand one’s network. Employers love to see that you’re willing to work hard for free, which speaks volumes about your ability to work when there’s an incentive on the table.
Everyone needs to feel needed and included, and volunteering fulfills that need. To top it off, the role of a coach in youth sports is akin to that of a teacher in a school. The pleasure and engagement gained by watching future generations grow up – quite literally before your eyes – feeds our need for an enduring legacy throughout generations.
League Network supports volunteers by creating better, more sustainable leagues. Not only do you become part of the team you help support through volunteering, you officially become part of the League Network family. Join us in our mission to create Better Leagues, Better Lives.
Being a referee or game official is a thankless job. Players get frustrated by your calls, there’s typically a lot of exercise involved with running up and down a field to observe game play, parents are constantly debating whether or not you’re good at what you do on the sidelines – or whether you suddenly went blind – often with words most would not repeat in front of their own mothers.
More than ever, game officials really have to hang on to their love of sport and kids to subject themselves to the abuse.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however. League members like coaches and even the parents of athletes can create a better atmosphere for referees and officials by helping to deescalate conflicts and learning more about the sport at hand.
1. Rule Education
We know that many parents get bad attitudes when it comes to referees making calls that negatively affect their team. Commonly referee volunteers or hired game officials take courses or have to read material on the rules of the sport their officiating, while parents can sometimes only have a basic understanding of the rules of the game.
One way to help alleviate some of the bad blood between angry parents and game officials is to arm parents with official links or brochures that better explain the more complicated rules of the game. Whether it’s baseball, soccer, lacrosse, hockey, wrestling, volleyball, gymnastics, track and field or football, each game has its own unique rules. In soccer and hockey, it’s the “off sides” rule. In baseball, the infield fly rule and the balk are common sources of confusion. In lacrosse, the penalty enforcement rules are complex. In wrestling and gymnastics, points are awarded based on judgment calls. In track and field, interference calls and faults are often hard to detect and critical to close outcomes. Parents who better understand the rules can be more at ease with a ref’s decisions.
2. Promoting a Value-Conscious Atmosphere
It’s important for everyone to understand that causing conflict, yelling and disrupting a game or meet because of a disagreement with an official doesn’t accomplish anything.
In the case of a disagreement with a ref, yelling on the field doesn’t accomplish anything, but waiting a few hours, and – if still warranted – sending an email to a league head might. Parents should be encouraged to film games and look at calls they believe adversely affected their team, reporting any that they believe should be questioned. The cool-off period is however crucial in that it bring the issue into perspective.
Parents should also be reminded that not every call a ref makes will be right, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to harass a game official or intrude upon the game. If they feel extremely angry while on the field, take a walk away from the game for a few minutes instead of causing a scene that will put fellow spectators and the players in a difficult position to take sides.
3. Promoting Referee and Team Relationships
Players can also become angry with referees. Often the “bad” call is only the manifestation of misplaced anger. Leagues can encourage refs to talk to both teams, and all participating athletes if the sport is not a team sport, in order to foster a relationship. This talk should include what to do before they call the game, how to act sportsmanlike while on the field and to congratulate each other after the game ends. It should also include warnings that unbecoming conduct from anyone (players, coaches, spectators) can – and will – be met with consequences.
Referees have a hard enough time with their job. Remember to thank them for their services and try to make their work environment as positive as possible. Much like airlines have taught us that flight attendants are primarily on board to ensure our safety, referees are on the field to ensure the players safety, enforcement of game rules and fairness. They need to be respected.