What I’ve Learned In 12 Years of Reffing Soccer

I’ve been reffing soccer since I was 12. I grew up playing soccer and wanted some extra spending money as a kid, so it was a natural fit. Over the past 12 years, I’ve learned a ton about myself and human nature in general.  I think some of the lessons I learned growing up as a referee led me be independent and to start my own business.  I even used some of my reffing money to finance my first business.  As I’ve been involved in entrepreneurship, I’ve found that reffing has taught me a ton about business, psychology and life in general.  Here’s a few:

1. The loudest people usually know the least

The people who yell/complain the most, usually know the least.  The people who are mostly silent or pick their spots to speak up usually know their stuff.  Parents, coaches, players.  People complaining about small issues usually don’t know anything and it’s best to ignore them. They just want attention.

2. You have to work hard and earn people’s respect

If you walk around slowly or don’t move outside of the center circle, people will think you’re lazy and will take every opportunity to criticize you if you’re not giving full effort. People are more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re working hard, even if you make a mistake.

3. Bullies like to pick on people they don’t think will fight back

I’ve seen coaches and fans brutally abuse 12-14 year old female referees because they know that the kid isn’t going to respond.  Which brings me to my next lesson:

4. Stand up for yourself and others

I threw out a 40 year old coach in my first game when I was 12.  He cussed me out even though I got the foul correct because he believed that the other 9 year old had tried to injure his player.  If you see someone bullying someone else, say something.  Even if you don’t get them to stop, the other person will appreciate it.

5. People live vicariously through others and it’s not a good thing

The worst parents to deal with are those who are living through their kids.  They are horrible to referees, but even worse to their kids.  Thankfully, my Dad never pulled some of the crap I see every season.

6. If you show people respect, they will likely respect you back.  If people won’t respect you back, don’t listen to them and move on.

If you start a relationship by respecting the other person, they’ll likely respect you back.  People deserve your respect from the start.  They don’t have to “earn your respect.”  But if you treat someone with respect and they don’t give it back, don’t listen and move on.  They’re not worth your time.

7. Be aware of politics

Believe it or not, there’s a ton of politics in the referee world, all the way up to the world cup.  Make sure you know the politics of any industry you’re in.  If you don’t like playing the politics game, it’s ok.  Just do what you enjoy.  Try not to bring politics into your own organizations and life, though.

8. Prepare and research for what you are about to do

The best referees that I know research the teams, history, players and coaches they are about to ref.  They know who plays club together, top goal scorers, enforcers.  It makes the job much easier.  Same with just about all aspects of life.

9. Take Responsibility

Show up on time, dress in a uniform and take responsibility for your calls.  You cant hide from players/coaches/fans when you’re the only one with the whistle.  Own up to your mistakes and people will respect you.  If you screw up, tell people you screwed up.  They will respect you for it in the end.

10. Be consistent. Be fair. Don’t call ticky tack, crazy calls that nobody understands.

Just like in life, be consistent and fair.  Don’t try to show people how smart you are.  Be fair and don’t be a dick.

11. Don’t be afraid to do what’s right, even if it’s hard.

It’s hard to disallow a goal in the 89th minute for a handball that only you saw.  Or an offside call that is really close.  You have to do what’s right, no matter what.  Even if it’s painful short term.  You have to live with yourself and you’ll feel better if you do the right thing, even if it’s hard.

Bonus time.  Here’s 10 things I’ve seen on the soccer field in the last 12 years:

1.  My first game.  Coach calls 12 year old me a “fucking idiot.”  I kick him out.  In my third game, I kick another coach out for saying similar things and he sits menacingly on his car trunk watching from the parking lot.

2. High School Game – Red player slide tackles blue player from behind.  I call the foul and give a red card to the red player.  Blue player’s teammate jumps up and jumps on red player’s back, grabs his hair and smashes his face into the ground repeatedly.

3. 14 year old kid tells 19 year old me “I’m going to find out where you live and kill you.”  I give him a red card, laugh and say “what are you going to do, do a bike by?”  Parents tell me I shouldn’t have given him a red card because he has “emotional issues.”

4. Coach is a state cup game attempts to punch 18 year old me in the face after I throw him out for swearing at me repeatedly.  He says “If you’re man enough to throw me out, you’re going to have to be man enough to make me” and has to be restrained by field marshals.

5. Parent is unhappy that his son has been red carded for saying that 21 year old me is “a fucking terrible idiot.”  Parent goes Bobby Knight and throws a chair onto the field, in my direction.  He’s ejected too.

6. U10 game.  Goal keeper makes a great save with his stomach and gets the wind knocked out of him.  Father gets really mad and announces to the parents sideline that he’s going to make “his little pussy” get back in the game.  I tossed him and he got a 3 game suspension.

7. Parent of 16 year old female select player screams at her daughter the entire game.  His kid is the best player on the team, but he thinks she can do better.  It gets so bad that the girl breaks down crying and screams at him that she wants to quit.  She had scored 2 goals and her team was winning.

8. Parents follow me to my car and attempt to not allow me to leave.  I’m 17 and it’s a u15 game.  They were mad that I called the game because of lightning while their team was losing.

9. U13 game.  Manager comes over to me to pay me before the game.  He looks me in the eye and says really slowly “This is a really important game, make sure you call it fair” as he’s handing me my pay envelope.  I didn’t think anything of it.  After the game, there’s an extra $40 in the envelope.  Bribing the ref in a u13 game?  Seriously?

10. Very clean high school girls game.  60 minutes in, a red player comes in screaming and makes a horrible slide tackle on a blue player.  I give her a red card and ask one of the other girls what that was all about.  They tell me that blue player had stolen red player’s boyfriend earlier that summer.

I probably have another 50 stories I could share, but I’ll leave those for another post.

On a serious note, 90% of referees quit in their first year.  The pay is great, but most people can’t take the abuse from parents and coaches.  There’s no other job where adults think it’s ok to scream and swear at 12-18 year olds and drive them to tears.  I would love to go to some accountant, attorney, construction worker, sales exec’s office and scream at him whenever I think he’s made a mistake, just so they can see what it’s like.  I’ve actually told that to parents as I’ve ejected them.  It doesn’t usually make an impression.


  • Nate — Love this post. Can’t tell you how many times I laughed while reading, and how many memories it brought back for me.


  • all of your examples illustrate the “dont do this” pointers from your post. Do you have any examples of the positive behaviors that are just as interesting? or are nice people too boring?

  • most of the time, the nice people are too boring, but i’ve met some great people through reffing and seen some amazing coaches/parents. i’ll write something up in a new post later with those stories.

  • Realize this is an old post but man did it bring memories from when I ref’d from ages 13 – 20. Related to all examples. Had good times, great times and bad times (like witnessing referees get spat on, or hit). I was never assaulted, but I was threatened many times, and I also had to ask coach’s to leave my first year (what’s the deal with that?). I had parents call an agressive (but fair) 8 year old girl on the other team a ‘monster’ and I snapped at them, saying she’s a little girl, not a monster, and shame on them (literally said “shame on you!”). The things that adults do to referees are unconscionable. I’m hoping with google glass or whatever, there will be no more of this “oh I didn’t assault or threaten the ref” crap, as it’ll be indisputable.

    Waht I have never understood is: referee’s aren’t born perfect, we get better by experience. No one expects a player to be perfect their first season; but people expect referee’s to know all the rules and apply them perfectly from the first whistle. Life isn’t like that.

  • Lost today final game State. On one hand our goalie gave some easy goals (I cannot blame refs or the other team). But, it would have been a different story if center ref made good calls too. First goal against us, our holding mid recovered a ball just outside our 18 box, got tripped by one of their players and fell and lost possession of the ball, ref calls “advantage” to the other team (really?)…. the other team gains possession, passes the ball in between two of our defenders, our goalkeeper clears it, and one of their players gets it and shoots above our goalkeeper, they score against us. The other two goals were fair, our goalkeeper made mistakes. What it wasn’t fair is when one of my players was dribbling in their goal area, about to score and between goalkeeper and their defender tackle her in area, and falls…. ref called “advantage”, really?…. Another play, one of our player crossed ball into the area, defender with arms up deflects the ball, we call “hand ball”, ref never makes the call, ball lands in one of our players and shoots, again and it hits another of their players hands and we scream “handball again in the area”… ref never calls it… I think ref forgot his glasses… anyway, we have to put up with inexperienced refs too, in the end it’s just a game. I’ve learned that “There’s nothing you can do about that”… you either laugh, scream, in the end “life’s not always fair”.

    • Sorry you couldn’t pull it out. While im sure it seems like a huge deal now, I’m sure you’ll end up looking back it all fondly as you go through life and hopefully realize that things are hard, unfair and you just gotta keep going! At the end of the day, refs, just like bosses, coworkers, people you meet on the street, are just human. They’re likely trying their best and maybe didn’t even ask to be assigned that game. As you put it, there’s nothing you can do about it and laugh and realize life’s not fair!

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