I’m not a huge football fan, but when the Green Bay Packers played the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football, I had a couple reasons to watch: I grew up in Seattle and I live in Wisconsin. So I watched the debacle, which could only loosely be called a contest, get worse as the minutes slipped away. Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half. The replacement referees got call after call wrong, resulting in both Seattle and Green Bay getting second chances they didn’t deserve. Fights broke out over unrecognized penalties. Lackluster Green Bay marched into the red zone and twice came away with only field goals. Then there was the interception/reception heard ‘round the world. That play will probably be watched more often than Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Two days later the referee lockout settled, which allowed the impending Thursday Night Football game the steady hand of experienced officiating. In the meantime, cheap shots by players knowing they could push the boundaries resulted in concussions and Texans quarterback Matt Schaub even lost part of his ear when his helmet was ripped off. Away from the weak eyes of the replacement refs, players, one after another, shove, slap or actually punch opponents who retaliated and got tagged with the penalty.
Make no mistake: sport is business. That includes all sports, not just professional sports. We don’t think of our tiny youth club as being a business, but it is. That’s why referees figure so prominently in the business plan. It’s no coincidence after a major blown call on a national stage that the NFL got it together and placated its experienced referees. Another week like the one that just happened or another national game on Thursday night grinding through sloppy refereeing would have meant fans abandoning the game in droves. When the bottom-line profits were threatened then the bottom line dropped a bit further to accommodate the demands of the referees.
How does this relate to youth soccer? Similar principles and pressures are at play. Clubs live and die by their reputation in the eyes of parents and players. If a club can maintain a winning record; visits to state, regional and even national championships; and send a fair number of players to the college ranks, it can brag on its prestige. Therefore, even youth clubs depend on both excellent officiating and quality players. Unfortunately, quality referees are becoming less and less available. Referees have to come up through the ranks and many young referees get burned out because of the abuse they encounter from coaches and parents. At $15 or $20 a game, it doesn’t become worth it to put up with catcalls, arguments or even physical abuse. But without serving long term as a referee, learning by experience how to make appropriate calls and developing the confidence to make calls, referees can’t evolve into the refs clubs need for games and tournaments at the older ages. The drive to put more games in the win column, even at the U-6 level, makes coaches confrontational when it comes to calls as they try to save every game. It’s incredible to consider, but paid coaches at many clubs have to worry about their jobs if their "success" rate, as measured in games won, drops.
That’s the problem youth clubs have. In order to attract the best players, the most paying players and the best coaches, they have put up numbers. The actual focus for youth clubs should be player development, but that often falls by the wayside because developing players doesn’t necessarily create the glamorous statistics that parents seem increasingly enamored by. If clubs don’t attract enough paying players they can’t support their budgets. But attracting those players becomes a numbers game of wins, which means recruiting strong players who either can’t pay or won’t pay but can help insure wins. Likewise, clubs want coaches who have as high a license rating as possible. But the higher the rating, the higher the salary demands. So clubs continue to advertise their success in terms that really don’t serve the average soccer player.
This drive for "success" extends to parents, who want their children to be on a winning team. We live in a success-driven society. I was apoplectic after Monday night’s call — yes I cheered for Green Bay over my old home town. The agitation I felt was actually odd because I’m not on the team, I have a real life, and win or lose, what Green Bay accomplishes doesn’t really affect my life. Yet, that’s what fans do — they internalize the ups and downs of their team. Add having your child on the team, and things become even more personal. So it’s not surprising that parents will get emotional, verbally attack referees and coaches, and even come down hard on their child or other players. It’s also not surprising that parents switch clubs seeking the most successful one they can find that will take their child.
Presently, the United States Soccer Federation sponsors a Developmental Academy for male players U-15 to U-18. This too is a business, which relies on clubs wanting the status of being Academy members and paying the price of participating in the program. There are corporate sponsorships both on the USSF level and the club level. The success of the Academy is closely tied to the success of the Men’s National Teams. The Academy has promised to improve the pool of male players for the USMNT, which theoretically should improve its success. Unfortunately, the first test failed as the men’s team failed to qualify for the Olympics this year. The team has also had some stunning losses, including to Mexico last year in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. The question for parents is if they should try to get their players onto Academy teams. The pluses are competition and exposure, as the best Academy teams do get more college attention at tournaments. However, there are multitudes of Academy teams that have such woeful records they don’t garner college coaches’ attention, and the competition is too far above their ability level, so that it is simply demoralizing. The development portion of the Academy is completely dependent upon the individual clubs, as the teams are far too spread apart to create a strong central coaching center. Many of the best Academy teams are associated with MLS clubs, so if you are lucky enough to live within driving distance of an MLS Academy team, you will have the opportunity to experience the top level. This is not the case for most players, and even if they are just a few hours away, the stress of driving to and from these team practices can take a huge toll on academics and temperament. The Academy also requires that players don’t play high school soccer, which should be a major consideration for you and your child.
How do we diminish the effects of business on youth soccer? I’m not sure we can as a whole, but as parents we can demand that we get our money’s worth in development and not demand winning as a part of our pay back. The players who want to will ultimately get seen by college coaches. They can guest play on teams going to college recruiting tournaments, and they can be seen at their high school games. But they have to have the skills, such as first touch, screening the ball, playing off the ball and passing. Those come through development. The business of youth soccer should be to develop top players through its system. The better the players, the more wins the team will have. Yet we have to be patient. Through U-12, we parents need to ask clubs to focus on development, and we need to wait for that development to pay off rather than jumping club to club to club looking for wins.
Finally, if this replacement referee era taught us anything, it should have taught us that top referees need to be respected and appreciated. I liken the replacement referee situation to putting a first year neurosurgery resident in the operating room in charge of a case. He bungles the operation, the patient dies and the hospital says, "Well, even the experienced neurosurgeon with 25 years experience has had patients die on the table." That’s true, but experience allows the surgeon to handle a crisis and to probably pull success from disaster. Likewise, referees make mistakes, but experienced referees make fewer of them and can find a way to balance out a mistake during a game. The youngest referees need our forbearance to move from unsure to confident. We parents and coaches need to use opportunities to teach the referees rather than chastise them. If our child makes a mistake doing homework, berating them for the mistake rarely gives them the self-confidence to continue to try. They now fear failure because they fear the anger. However, if we use the mistake as a learning opportunity, then we build from the mistake. The same holds true for our young referees. We need to let them know they are appreciated for stepping into the lion’s den and doing the best they can to keep order in a game. We need to respect the experience they bring to the game, as they develop along with our own players.
I’m sure the pundits will be watching with eagle-eyed criticism of the returning referees. Every time they make a mistake, it will be over-analyzed and over-discussed. Hopefully, that will only last a week and hopefully they will be able to point out how better controlled the games have become and how less egregious the mistakes are. As the NFL moved toward its most profitable year ever, it recognized that it needed the experience of its referees to insure the money kept rolling in. Youth clubs need to recognize the same thing and understand that developing players and respecting budding referees will ultimately build their clubs to the profitable and successful levels they seek. Once they set the standard it will help maintain them going forward. As parents, we need to look for a quality product to buy, which means looking past wins to find the real core advantage of a good youth club.