Each soccer game has three main participants: players, coaches and referees. While the performance of the first two is the focus of many major youth competitions, a program taking place in the US Youth Soccer Midwest Conference and US Youth Soccer Great Lakes Conference is aiming to help grow the level of that third piece of the game — officiating — in the Midwest Region.
For nearly two years, the Referee Academy has been providing some referees in the Midwest Region with additional coaching and learning opportunities. The program is taking advantage of the Conference events to provide an environment for increased and immediate mentoring in highly competitive games.
The excerpts below come from interviews with some of the people involved in the program. They each talked about its goals and benefits during the Fall 2019 Midwest Conference Showcase in St. Louis. With the Spring 2020 season upcoming, the referees will have more chances for improvement and an opportunity to come together at the Conferences Grand Park Showcase in May for more key learning experiences.
CONCEPT OF THE REFEREE DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM
Chico Villarruel, Midwest Region Referee Administrator
Part of the idea here is that you’ve got the top two divisions in the Midwest Conference [fall season] or Great Lakes Conference [spring season] playing in their college showcase — really trying to showcase and develop for the next generation. The concept was to take the third leg of soccer and do the same with officials. Bring them to an event where they can see higher levels of competition, where they can get individual feedback, where they can get feedback as a crew and develop so that they can have an opportunity to go up to the next level. More importantly, they can take the skills learned at these events back to their communities, and serve the Leagues Program and US Youth Soccer in the way we want the referees to develop of the future of the game.
Justin Janulewicz, Grade 8 Referee and program participant
We have all these ref coaches here who are helping us out a lot. They’re able to give us tips that will not only help us on a game like this one, but will help us in a game at the next level. And I believe all these referees here are trying to get to that next level. It’s really helpful having these ref coaches here and also having referees by your side who want to get higher up and want to try to improve. You feed off each other. It’s kind of like a family, where you try to help each other out and want to see everyone improve to get to that next level.
Itzel Ochoa, Grade 8 Referee and program participant
The main thing is to give us as much feedback from the top levels to help us with our game and work on our skills here. We’ll be working our games here and afterward, or even during halftime, the ref coaches will come up and give us a few pointers on what we can do better and what we’re doing well. Just to encourage us and give us some more confidence on the field. With all the mentoring, we have a good idea of what we’re doing — it’s just kind of polishing it, is what they like to say.
GOALS OF THE PROGRAM
There are multiple goals we want each referee to achieve. One, is for them to realize they have potential. Secondly, it’s to be seen by people they may not typically see. Learn that feedback they’ve been getting in their own state is not only on target, but there are other people who can add frosting to what’s been given to them so that they can take it a step further.
Tim Deters, Referee Liaison for the Midwest Conference and Great Lakes Conference
Obviously, we want the referees to develop and improve. We want to use this as a venue to identify which referees we should have at Regional events. And yes, we have referee coaches here who know how to talk to the referees, but a potential is also to use this to train referee coaches, as well. A referee coach can shadow someone like Tony Crush, who is a national referee coach. The younger and newer referee coaches can learn from that. It’s all about education and trying to get the referee program to improve and get better.
Giuliano Oliviero, Soccer Coach – SC Wave (WI)
As coaches, we strive to develop our players, and it’s no different when it comes to referees. They need opportunities to work their way up and develop as referees, figure things out and improve as they go. Being in events like this is only going to make them better. I think it’s a great program, and I think the US Youth Soccer Leagues Program is a fantastic environment for referees to work in as they try to reach the next level and show what they’ve got.
BENEFITS OF WORKING WITH THE CONFERENCES AND AT MAJOR CONFERENCE SHOWCASES
There’s a great recognition from the conference administrators, where they know you have great players, but you have to bring the referee program with that, as well. We’re talking about working not only with the Leagues Program, but with the state referee associations to be able to feed into this a little more and hopefully expand it.
This is another venue and another path where we can help identify referees. And then work with the state referee associations, saying, ‘We saw this person at the Midwest Conference match. They need to be getting State Cup matches. They need to be getting looked at for Regional events.’
On the play weekends, we’re there doing scouting and development. We’ll talk to a person and watch a field for five minutes. At this showcase event, we get full matches with referees. So, one is really developmental. One is educational. This conference showcase event allows for learning and to facilitate ideas.
I get a little more out of the games here. I can have more time to spend with the referee coaches here, whereas other events you’re doing quick debriefs and things have to go fast. Here, I can take the time and really ask the in-depth questions that I may not get to go into at the Regional Championships. Here, the development program referees have the five fields to officiate, so everything is really condensed, and you get more of a one-on-one and a tight group.
… I think it’s really cool to have referees at such a high level here to give us a piece of their mind on how the game works. It’s the most beneficial experience I’ve had. This is my first time coming to this event, so the improvement I’ve made the last couple years is all because of this mentoring. I got immediate feedback, and it was nice to have it fresh in my mind and take it into consideration.
Henry Steinwascher, Soccer Coach – Nationals Union (MI)
I think what the Great Lakes Conference and Midwest Conferences are trying to do is something that has needed to be done. Getting coaches’ feedback, bringing in referee coaches and bringing in the best referees — it showed at the showcase in St. Louis that the quality of refereeing was better. I think there’s still a gap that needs to be closed because as the players get better, referees need to get better. The overall game is continuing to get better, so having the referee program is something that is really useful.
... I enjoyed it. I was able to get feedback from the referee coaches and from referees. It was more of an open forum as opposed to coach vs. referee or referee vs. coach. Right after the game, I was able to talk to the referee coaches, and they were asking coaches’ perspectives on things, so I thought it was really good.
REPRESENTATION OF THE REFEREES IN THE PROGRAM
For this event, we have 20 referees, with seven of them being females. Ideally, we’d like a balance with the same number of males and females. We’d like two referees from every state in the region. Not that we want to dominate the event because local communities also need to be part of this. And other referees who want to be here, should be here. We’re dealing with half the region since there’s a split between states in the conferences. We’re working across the region — not focusing on some but focusing on all.
PERSONAL ASPIRATIONS FOR PROGRAM REFEREES
Getting to the FIFA level is something I aspire for. That would be a dream come true. The fact that opportunity has been implemented here — we have two males and two females on our crew — they’ve even implemented 50/50 from the beginning. It’s nice they’ve taken that into consideration. They’re trying to flow with everything and we’re being advocated for and everything.
The goal I want to take out of this is to get that national appearance. I’d like the ref coaches here to be able to see me at this level, and I want to show them that I’m able and capable to do that national level. I’m on the grind to get to that FIFA level and MLS level. I have a lot of passion and heart for the game, and I do want to get up there.
… One of my goals as a referee is that when I’m officiating a game, I don’t want it where the coaches and players are thinking ‘Is this referee going to make this kind of decision? Will this referee affect the game in any way?’ I want them to think about team tactics and work on themselves. After the game, you feel happy and relieved to get through the game without any incidents. And if there were incidents, reflect on them to see if you handled them properly.