Why so Many Youth Sports Officials Quit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Come on, ref.” The parent on the sideline threw his hands up in frustration. “That wasn’t a foul!” A few minutes later the complaint flipped, like a coin. “Come on, ref. Call that!”

It’s a soundtrack that could have come from any number of games in a variety of sports across the country. Much like a burger comes with a side of fries, most youth sports are served with a sideline of emotionally invested fans. After all, their progeny is on the field.

As a parent of active, athletic kids, I can relate. In full disclosure, I’ve been known to yell while watching my favorite team on television. It follows that I’ll hoot and holler while watching my favorite people compete live right in front of me.

But sometimes it seems as if the sidelines are on steroids.

This fall, for example, two parents in Renton, Washington, were cited for assault after a sideline brawl during a youth football game. The children playing were 9 and 10 years old.

While I’ve thankfully never seen a fistfight break out, I’ve seen the appetizer to that meal.

At a recent soccer game of 12- and 13-year-olds, supportive sideline cheers of “good job” and “nice pass” quickly shifted to stock complaints that ping-ponged between what was called and what wasn’t. The ref couldn’t win. Neither could the assistant referee on the spectators’ sideline. She was about 15.

As she ran up and down, her back to the parents and eyes on the field of play, a few adrenaline-fueled fans turned their frustrations on her. Their comments crossed a line because soon her shoulders shook with soft sobs. Still she continued, completing her job with more self-control and maturity than the adults behind her.

I didn’t hear the specific words that reduced her to tears but the tone was clear and angry. Since I don’t know those parents, rather than address them and risk escalating their overcharged emotions, I spoke to the young girl in front of me, encouraging her to keep her chin up and ignore the sidelines.

I hope she heard me. I hope she didn’t quit.

Sideline behavior has gotten so bad, many youth officials quit soon after they’re certified, compounding a statewide soccer referee shortage.

Of the 166 new officials certified last spring, the Inland Empire Soccer Referee Association reported only 84 of them were still working games.

“Attrition is at an all-time high,” said IESRA President Debora Brock, describing how spectators have yelled at teenage referees, used profanity, grabbed their arms and prevented them from leaving the field or parking lot.

“People aren’t willing to take that kind of abuse and nobody should,” she said. “We need to do something before we lose the game. Without officials it’s hard to have a soccer game.”

In response, last month IESRA released a zero-tolerance policy, aimed at curtailing inappropriate behavior directed at youth officials.

It’s a pervasive problem. The Puget Sound Premier League estimates 40 percent of youth officials quit this season across the state. This week the PSPL also sent a letter to its member clubs announcing a new initiative to address sideline behavior and the referee shortage, including a lack of experienced, well-educated officials.

“We need better refs, and we need more refs,” said PSPL President Stanley Holmes, noting that the problem is cyclical.

New officials make mistakes, sometimes costing games, he said. When the sideline response makes them quit before they can learn from those mistakes and gain experience, it compounds the referee shortage.

“The youth official is learning to officiate. They’re going to make mistakes. We’re trying to train them and make them better. If every year we start with new youth officials we’ll never have officials that have experience to move up the following year,” explained Brock.

Meanwhile, the pool of experienced officials tends to choose high school and college games over youth games because they pay more and have less sideline stress.

“We need to better educate refs. They need experience. We have to do this together,” said Holmes, adding that they’re addressing the problem by sponsoring entry-level referee training while raising awareness and working with clubs to recruit more referees. Parents are encouraged to join the pool.

It’s time for me and my fellow parents of youth athletes to self-assess and see how we can help, starting with some perspective.

Why are we so emotionally invested in the outcome of a game played by children and teens? Why are we checking our self-control at the car? If someone filmed the sidelines and played it for our employers, would we be embarrassed?

Just because I didn’t swear or throw a punch doesn’t mean I’m not part of the problem. Anytime I yell at an official, I’m a contributor.

In all the years I’ve watched my children play soccer, basketball, football or baseball I’ve yet to see an official’s calls improve because someone yelled in frustration from the sidelines. Clearly, that approach isn’t working.

I’m only one mom, and I have no desire to officiate, but I hope other parents will join me by pledging to keep our mouths shut on the sidelines unless we have something positive to say. If I slip up, feel free to offer me a lollipop. And if I offer you one, please take the hint.

This column originally appeared Nov 7, 2014 in The Spokesman Review where Jill writes her “That’s Life” twice a month.

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