Officiating at youth football matches involves a lot more than simply applying the Laws of the Game.
Refereeing a match involving children requires tact, a sense of humour, an ability to temper the Laws with common sense, a desire to make the occasion as enjoyable as possible and a strong focus on the health and safety of the players.
Keep it safe
1. The pitch
Whether you’re a qualified, neutral referee or a parent who has been “persuaded” to officiate, you need to arrive at the ground in plenty of time to inspect the pitch properly.
If it’s cold and frosty, look at every part of the pitch very carefully. Wear boots/cleats during your inspection and pay particular attention to the goalmouths and centre circle. But even if these areas are playable you should call the game off if any other part of the pitch, no matter how small, is too hard to “take a stud”.
Check for holes in the pitch and ask that they be repaired before play begins and also ask for any debris, especially animal faeces, to be removed.
2. Goal post safety
A child being seriously injured or worse, losing their life, is the worst possible thing that could happen during a youth football match.
Yet hundreds of children have suffered major injuries and, sadly, many have died as a direct result of insecure or damaged football goals falling on top of them.
We don’t want any more headlines like these:
“Goalie had football goal blown on top of her by a gust of wind. She suffered fractures to both legs.”
“Ten-year-old Hayden Barnes Ellias died while playing goalkeeper for the Winchester United U11s team when the goal fell on top of him.”
So please make sure you inspect the goals and refuse to let the match take place unless they are firmly anchored to the ground and free of defects.
And if a goal is damaged during the game, the match must be abandoned. Do not allow temporary repairs to be made.
Make it fun
The role of a referee in youth football is very much that of a “game leader” rather than on official.
Flexibility and friendliness should be combined with instruction at appropriate moments.
Incorrect throw-ins, for example, need not be penalised immediately. If a seven-year-old lifts her foot off the ground an inch or two or steps onto the pitch while taking a throw-in, it is sensible to explain the correct method and give her another chance.
It’s best not to try to coach while officiating but offering advice and saying “well done” to players who show good sportsmanship or good skills helps create a friendly, supportive atmosphere.
And having a quiet word with players who get overexcited, even if no foul has been committed, can help avoid fouls and injuries later in the game.
Keep it fair
It goes without saying that the Laws should be applied consistently but it’s also important that you aren’t seen to be too friendly with one team or coach.
If you are a parent referee, avoid using first names if you have to speak to your child’s team mates and discourage your son or daughter from asking “dad” to tie up boot laces when you’ve got the whistle in your hand!
Look the part
If you have a referee’s outfit, wear it. If you don’t, wear a smart tracksuit or plain football kit.
Appropriate footwear is a must – nothing amuses players more than seeing the ref sliding around on a muddy pitch in trainers!
Be a role model
Always be polite when speaking to players, coaches and spectators. Speak to others as you would wish to be spoken to.
If you are being criticised, stay calm. Explain your actions if you feel it’s necessary but don’t allow yourself to be abused. If a parent or coach oversteps the mark, you are quite entitled to stop the match and insist they are quiet and if they won’t, ask them to leave the area.
You can show young players that referees are human by acknowledging any mistakes you make (and you WILL make some!) but try to learn from your mistakes too. Don’t keep making the same error over and over again.
Finally, remember that youth football is only a game. It’s supposed to be fun, not serious.
So don’t forget to smile!
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