Foul Weather, or How I Learned to Relax and Enjoy Being a Soccer Ref
It is a truth universally accepted that the youth sports sideline is one of the more toxic places in American society. Parents can all too easily work the scale from rude to mean to downright crazy…and that’s just when they’re talking to their kids. Nevertheless, last summer I decided to wade into this morass and become a USSF certified referee. I’m not entirely sure what led me to it, but I can say that it’s been one of the better decisions I’ve made recently.
That feeling still surprises me. After all, working in a public school like I do, you would think I’d get my fill of baseless accusations and general disrespect. Apparently not. Then again, maybe that’s why I have taken to it so well. Most of the parents and coaches I’ve run into so far are just as quick to lash out at perceived injury as many of my middle schoolers. And, like my students, the adults are just as likely to defend themselves with aggression when it’s clear they are in the wrong. I suppose I give the kids a pass, because they are still young in the world. As I’ve seen the same behavior in grown men and women, though, I’ve learned a lot about human tendencies and just what kind of person I want to be.
Keep Your Cool
Early in the season, I got yelled at a lot. Like, a whole lot. Now, this could be for a number of reasons. I was new and, admittedly, it took me some time to get my feet under me. I missed a lot of calls as I got a feel for the ebb and flow of youth soccer, and knowing the rules does not necessarily translate into applying them. Unlike baseball or football, the soccer official has tremendous latitude in the interpretation of the laws. You can imagine how much coaches love and understand this subtlety. So, it takes some guidance and experience to work out the balance. Shoot, I’m still working it out. You know what doesn’t help, though? Yelling. Maybe it’s because I was getting a lot wrong. Maybe it was because it was hot, or because I was working tournaments. Whatever the reason, coaches yelled, parents yelled, and refs yelled. Around kids. At kids. And the kids definitely noticed. It’s not part of the landscape to them; it’s an example of adulthood, of how grownups act. Some kids were able to shake it off, while others were definitely wounded. Still others internalized the anger they saw and turned it back outward.
I was reminded of Wes Stafford’s idea that children are like wet cement. When they’re young, the impressions made are deep and lasting. I was already seeing this played out on the field, and I made a decision. One day, as part of a two-referee system, I watched my partner get into a shouting match with a coach. The exchange was brief, but 30-some odd pairs of 9-year-old eyes were all trained on the outburst. I decided right then and there that that wouldn’t be me. I would make calls, correcting wayward kids and coaches alike, but I would not do it with anger. I refuse, as much as it is in my power to do so, to add to the general miserableness of the world. As a Christian, to do otherwise is to show myself a hypocrite and a fool, for “fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults” (Proverbs 12:16). I may not have one-on-one interactions with all the players on my field, but they can at least see me keep my cool and be fair, and perhaps that is something.
Mind Your Business
Of course, to carry that centered sense of authority, I have to know my stuff. More than that, I came to realize that my business is not just knowing the rules but explaining them as well. At first, I would just make the calls and run on, thinking that was enough. The parents and coaches could yell all they wanted; it wasn’t going to change the call. What I was forgetting, though, is that the world is made up of human connections. One day, in the minutes before halftime, there was a confused scrum a foot from me. Kids went down in the penalty box, but there was no penalty. No one was careless or excessive, just clumsy. A coach standing right behind me screamed for a penalty kick. I shook my head, got play started again, and ran off. At half-time, though, my partner pulled me aside. “I find that giving them (coaches) a quick explanation, especially when it’s a no-call, makes all the difference. They won’t always agree–usually won’t agree–but it helps.” It was a gentle critique, but one I sorely needed.
So, before the second half started, I jogged over to the coach and said something to the effect of “I was right on top of it, and I know it looked ugly, but everyone was clean.” He sort of grunted at me, but our interactions the rest of the day were much calmer. If I blew a foul, rather than screaming, he asked “What was that for?” I would give him a quick one or two-word reason, lightly phrased, and he usually responded with “Oh, ok.” It was such a small change, but it got to the heart of his humanity. I wasn’t just brushing him off; I was hearing him and responding. Day to day, so many of us seek out the same thing as that coach: an acknowledgement of being heard. That sense that even “the very hairs on your head are all numbered” is what draws people to God and each other. We can hide behind our roles and ignore one another, or we can recall our humanity, our acceptance in Christ, and spend the few moments it takes to talk to another human being. It’s what Jesus did and, if you stop to think about it, it’s what the people who have touched your life did as well.
Let Them Play
Earlier, I mentioned the referee’s prerogative, and nowhere is it clearer than when I “play the advantage.” This is when I decide not to call a foul because the offended team still has possession, and it would only slow them down. I throw both arms out in front of me and holler “Play on!” It’s more fun than it should be. Not only does it mean I can avoid a moment of conflict, but it gets to the heart of why I enjoy this gig so much. Soccer is the only game I know that just goes. When I blow the whistle, there are only minor pauses in play, no real breaks. There are no timeouts (in outdoor, anyway), not commercial breaks, no switching at the end of an inning. When we’re on the field, we’re moving and playing and doing nothing else. There is almost nowhere else in my life where that is true, where I can focus on a single thing to exclusion of all else. Shoot, I don’t even carry my phone, because I can’t answer a call or text on the field. Do you know how freeing that is? I revel in that, and then I look at the kids. Even at the highest level games, they are still kids at play. There are no phones out there for them either. No Instagram, no Snapchat, no teachers, and no parents. The can put an eighty dollar shoe straight in a mud puddle and ignore anything their mom has to say about it. Once, a ten-year old boy went tumbling on a swampy field, turning his white uniform brown. His mom, only half jokingly, cried “I just did laundry!” The sidelines laughed, but not as much as when the kid ran past and said, “Can’t talk, mom. Playing soccer.” He almost immediately went into a slide tackle.
This is my favorite sort of thing to see, people having fun with the game. Sure, it’s important for the kids to try hard, to work at the game, but the minute you lose sight of the word “kid” is the minute you make the game too important. I’ve seen a lot of different types of parents so far, but the ones who have inspired me are the ones who allow their kids to define the experience. Rather than project their own desires onto the field, parents like this choose to laugh when their kid laughs, no matter what the scoreboard reads. Jesus said “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,” and that is just as true on the soccer pitch as it is in church. In choosing this attitude, these parents make the space and time within those white lines fun, sacred even. The world we live in is constantly pressing against us, demanding our time and attention, pulling us away from relationships. If we make the choice, however, to approach a soccer field “like a little child”, each one of us can create a small pool of rest in the rushing stream of time. It’s a temporary buffer, sure, but learning to do it in one place is giving me the strength to do it elsewhere. And in a world bracketed by violence and heartbreak, being a source of peace puts me and those around me one step closer to God.