Opinion: Youth Referees Quitting at High Rates Due to Parents, Coaches


Scott Starkey

Senior Colleen Starkey, eighth grader Otto Straus and seventh grader Seth Derksen perform a coin toss at a tournament game. Many referees for youth games like this have quit due to unruly parents or coaches.

Colleen Starkey, Editor-in-Chief

Fox News recently reported that 80% of youth officials and referees, from recreational play up to high school varsity games, are quitting before their third year due to unruly parents. I have been a referee for three and a half years, which is equivalent to seven full seasons. As a recreational soccer referee, I can understand this trend, although the trend is across many sports, not just soccer. However, the problem is with more than just parents. I personally have dealt with more issues from coaches than I have with parents. Regardless, there is indeed a problem in youth sports that is causing referees to leave.

The main issues referees have with parents and coaches is dissent. Most parents and coaches do not have a full understanding of the rules of the game, and even the most knowledgeable rarely take the time to go over any rule changes that the international rule-makers send out each summer. Therefore, when a referee enforces these new laws of the game, parents and coaches often believe the referee has a misunderstanding, or a lack of knowledge, of the rules of the game. While referees do make mistakes from time to time, most organizations have meetings and clinics before each season to go over any rule changes there may be. The main goal is for the referees to do the absolute best job they can. One thing many spectators and team officials don’t seem to understand, though, is that despite all the precautions taken to ensure a smooth, accurately-called game, referees are still humans, so we will still make mistakes and no game will be completely perfect. If only parents and coaches could understand, remember and allow for that while watching a game, a lot of dissent and problems would be alleviated naturally.

Additionally, most youth sports officials are teenagers with very little experience. Most sports allow for anyone 16 and older – or even as young as 12 in some sports – to become certified to officiate games. Most parents and coaches believe that just because a referee has become certified to officiate games, that they are essentially automatically capable of doing a fantastic job on the field. However, that is not the case. The referee certification merely provides a deeper knowledge of the rules and a basic understanding of the tasks a good referee will be expected to perform. Along with this, referees need to be good at thinking on their feet in order to truly do a good job. While some referees are more natural at this skill than others, the more experience a referee has, the better they become at it, and many of these referees are too young to have had an opportunity to develop this skill. 

Parents and coaches often create problems during games. On occasion, I have heard spectators and team officials cursing about a call a referee has made. More often, these people do not use profanity, but they insert other words to replace profane words. Either way, their lack of faith and their dissent towards referees is obvious. It is rare for a weekend to go by when someone has not said something against a referee. The association I referee for has maintained the majority of its officials. This is mainly due to the support from the association’s leaders. However, without that firm support for the referees, it is likely my association would lose many more officials to unruly parents and coaches, and although we have lost very few, I can see how easily a referee could become fed up with having to constantly deal with harassing words from these people and decide to walk away from it instead of continuing on.

Refereeing by itself is hard work. Thinking on your feet, watching as much of the field as possible in order to call anything illegal and just in general maintaining control of the game, the team benches and the spectators is not easy. If a problem is bad enough, most associations will have a way for anyone to file a complaint, where appropriate action will then take place, but parents and coaches should remember that referees are people too. We will make mistakes, and that alone does not indicate a lack of skill or knowledge of the game. Referees will do their very best, and they could do an even better job if parents and coaches refrained from any dissent or harshness toward referees.