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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

My first time working the Center position....

They say a referee always remembers their first time in the Center referee position - and that's probably true! My first center role was this past Sunday when I reffed a U-12 girls recreation league game in West Hartford. To say that its an eye-opening experience on what refereeing is all about would be an understatement! But I have to say that it was a blast!

Rec leagues in most towns are meant to serve as a sort of "developmental league" for up and coming soccer players (and probably some parents send their kids there to blow off some excess energy.) But its also a good developmental league for new referees who are trying to get their feet wet (like moi), and can get a sense of what's its like to be in the center, make calls and run the game as an official.

Coming fresh off playing role as the assistant referee (AR) for an older kids travel game on Saturday (and my first observations of what a referee should do or ask at the pre-game) I probably confused some of the kids because I sort of went on what I had observed the day before from watching the Center ref go through the pre-game motions - probably reserved for higher level games. Remember, there is no "training" for this sort of thing - you just "do it".

During the pre-game activity - I learned that at this level there are no player cards to inspect, or roosters and numbers to compare and track for substitutions, and even the coach's weren't even sure of who the home team was. As with any soccer game I did my inspections for jewelry, and I had a fairly comical experience - a few of the girls were wearing metal jewelry that has to be removed based on general safety rules. One girl was wearing a large sharp metal hair clip with a fine point on it, when I told her that she had to remove it, she asked me why, and I replied, "oh that's metal, someone could get killed out there." The girls realized my exaggeration, started mimicking me and saying, "oh, killed, someone could get killed." I sort of laughed to myself realizing that these 12 year olds were having fun with me, and I probably smirked a bit as they taunted me using the word killed a dozen times. I had forgotten how sharp and creative twelve year olds can be. So I just stood there and took my medicine politely.

Another girl looked at me and asked me where she should put her necklace, and I quickly replied "give it to your coach for safe keeping." Oh course, her neckless probably wasn't much risk to anyone else, but the rules are the rules and she could have had it broken on the field through contact with another player or by falling - anyway.

To further illustrate the mindset of the kids and my initial lack of understanding of the league, when I went to do the coin toss, I asked the kids who was going to be the spokesman - this is usually a player appointed who communicates with the ref about aspects of the game like who will take a kick, or whether they want a wall pushed back or whatever. I instead received the question, "what's a spokesman?" I tried to explain it, but the players serving as captains, sort of tilted their heads in confusion (sort of like the RCA dog sitting over the phonograph) and I simply said, "never mind" and flipped the coin.

The rec league game really opened my eyes to a number of things that I need to do to sharpen my own ability on the field. First, let me say that all of my bragging about going to the gym at 5 am and exercising for 45 minutes at a clip, didn't do justice to the hard work required to keep up with the kids, running back and forth at full speed from goal to goal, zig-zagging to and fro to try and stay in the right position. On one hand I have to give myself credit for keeping up with the kids for two 30 minute periods, but on the other hand I realize that I have a long way to go fitness wise before I don't look like I'm dogging it out there.

And all in all, it seems that these soccer games are very well attended. There must have been about 50 people on the sidelines observing all of the action. It was very surprising, and perhaps a little intimidating - because after all - they all have eyes too!

On the more important front - the actually calling of the game, I found it more complicated than I ever expected. For one, observing the movement of the ball and players up close and letting your brain process what it thinks it saw when at the split second a ball goes out of bounds is somewhat challenging - was the ball deflected, and off of who? And its more complicated when almost every time, the kids look to you to tell them who's throw-in it is. I observed that in the older kids games, the kids tended to know who got the throw in, and I assume that comes with experience, sportsmanship, and just trying to get the game back underway. From my perspective, few calls go overturned in the older kids' games since the players tend to "get it right."

I also found that nearly every time even after a call was made, after the point when it was determined which team was awarded the throw-in or kick - the kids sought direction from their bench as to which player should take the throw in. There were some lags because of this and kids looked at me and I would have to tell them that someone should take the throw in so that we can get the game underway. A few times, I offered, "Why don't you throw it in number X". As it is only developmental in nature, I can see where the kids needed some direction, but I also think they should have some lattitude to play the game without direction for each and every throw in.

Also, I was somewhat handicapped by the fact that I had only one assistant referee, so I I had to haul my tail down to one quadrant because I didn't have an AR to watch out for offsides calls, and I had to be close enough to the action and lines in that quad in order to make out of bounds calls. This made my first center job doubly difficult because offsides can be a tough call from behind the players (which is why ARs (linesman) exist, and why in ref school ARs are told to stay glued to the second to last defender) because of the awkward angle in which the players can appear to the center ref.

So, as time goes on, I'll expect that I'll become much better at quickly confirming (in my mind) who the ball came off of. Another issue for my own development is to use the hand signals more regularly. I tended to confidently yell "orange penalty kick" or "grey throw-in" but didn't use the hand signals in conjunction with the calls to indicate direction as often I as I should have. This was partly because I don't think I had it fully locked in my mind as to which direction the grey team, for example, was attacking. So I knew who's ball it was, but simply didn't make the signal to indicate which direction that the return of play should go in. This is something I need to work on, as I later learned that the coach's were looking for more hand signals from me. I think I was more focused on making sure that my possession calls were accurate.

I'd also say, I could probably use more sporadic use of the whistle. In class, they told us not to use the whistle when it was obvious that the ball "went out of bounds". So I tended not to use the whistle as much as some other refs might. The constant blowing of the whistle tends to make players ear deaf to calls where the whistle needs to be heard. So I'm trying to give it the right balance.

I know I blew one call, and that was a throw in at the second minute of the game, where one of the girls might have come up a little with her foot during the throw in, but by the time I realized I hadn't blown the whistle, the game was 20 seconds underway past that point, so I let them continue. My AR noted the throw in was a bad one because he mentioned it to me at the half. I said, "yeah I know, I missed that one."

My sole AR was in his second game ever as a ref, so the two of us were newbies and in one respect that was tough because you never know what you are going to get from such a young kid, but on the other - at least he wasn't a veteran picking up on every mistake I could have been making out there. He did a good job, although at times he was waving his flag around - NASCAR style - probably out of boredom. But he's going to be good, he was focused and was having fun with it.

At about the 6 minute mark, a defensive player pushed down an attacking player in the penalty area. Since advantage changed to the girl who did the pushing, I immediately blew my whistle and awarded a penalty kick for the aggression. Now, should I have issued a yellow card? I still think about it, and perhaps I should have, but then again I didn't want to go crazy with issuing cards - and only six minutes into my first game! Instead I looked at the offending player and said out loud, "penalty kick, you cannot push someone down on the field." The kick was taken and no goal was recorded. But I think me making the call helped with the game because the aggressive pushing stopped after that point, and I think I awarded only a few additional direct kicks for minor fouls during the remainder of the game.

Enjoying all of this, my wife came by with my daughter and snapped several pictures of me (actually shown above) "in action". This is sort of funny because I was so concentrated on the game, that although they had been standing on the sidelines watching me for twenty minutes, I didn't see them until about 2 minutes to the half - and I only saw them by chance because I heard a little girl crying, and I looked outward during a stoppage of play to see them both standing there. My daughter wanted to apparently bring me a dandelion that she had picked on the grounds and was upset that she could come and bring it to me.

At the end of the game, I added two minutes of stoppage time for delays - and all in all, I looked forward to blowing the whistle three times to signal the end of the game (grey team had won 3-0 in what was a little bit of a lopsided game). There was a feeling of relief that my first game had come to a close, but also a small feeling of accomplishment that I had gone over the hump and had my completed my first experience without being chased off the field by coaches or parents. (And particularly parents - most certainly after what I reported in this blog about Saturday's game where a few people were a little more than rude throughout the game, openly criticizing and demeaning the center ref, and causing a ruckus). Thank God, I had avoided all of that!

Risking all, I asked for feedback from the coaches (I didn't tell either coach this was my first game) and the winning coach said I did a good job , he only disagreed with one throw-in call I made but other than that he was complimentary. The other coach was only critical of my lack of hand signals, which as mentioned I need to focus on a little more in my next game. I thanked him for his feedback and agreed with him. He seemed a little annoyed that his team had lost, but I think that's just "being a coach". Hey, I feel the same way about losing. I'm just glad that the game wasn't lost or won on any of my calls.
And lastly, boy that bengay sure comes in handy. Monday was one tough day as I recovered from two days of vigorous exercise on the field!
All in all, it was a great experience! And I look forward to many more games so I can work on my referring proficency and enjoy "the beautiful game" from the best view on the field.

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