Why Our Referee Mentor Program Works (NASO Association Advantage)

By January 1, 2012 No Comments

By Grace Schwanda

The Referee Mentoring Program is a training program for soccer referees at the Park District in Wheaton, Ill. The idea for the program began with a camp for new referees. When the turnout exceeded our expectations in the spring of 2011, we began a referee camp before each season in the fall and spring (2012).

Typically our referees are players from our program who notice that their friends are becoming referees when they turn 14 years old. We also have adults who love the game and want to try refereeing instead of playing the sport. Each season we have about 20 new referees join our roster of trained referees.  

Our camps have an outside component on the fields and classroom time on the Laws of the Game. We discuss the philosophy and psychology of being a referee. We examine what it will take to do our first game on the field as a referee. It always amazes me how much information and experience a referee needs to know to do an outstanding job. Our goal is that no referee has to go out to their first game by themselves without first having practice on a field.  

Some of our referees have passed the USSF test and two-day training in the winter and feel unprepared to referee but don’t have options of how to practice.  Studying from a book is not the same as running on a field with a whistle and having coaches, parents and players counting on you to make the call. It’s important to devise a way for officials to have onfield training. New officials need practice for a season with mentors assessing and assisting them. 

We don’t send players out without a coach, so why would we do that to referees? We do a disservice to the spirit of the game by sending out under-prepared officials. The following is what we do to train new officials for our mentor program. Your association or league can adapt the ideas to fit your sport and needs.

Referee Camp

Our plan is for all referees to attend the soccer referee camp for three evenings before the start of the season. The last night is outdoors at a scrimmage being assistant referees and learning what it means to hold the flag. They call throw-ins, goalkicks, corner kicks and offside with a mentor standing with them. Mechanics of where to stand and how to get to the goalline are demonstrated and discussed. The immediate feedback is what makes the time so valuable.  

Onfield Mentors During the Season

Mentors are assigned fields with the new referees. They are by the touchline, watching and critiquing the mechanics of referees. They are ready to give feedback at every call or at the end of every period. Beginning as assistant referees (AR) helps to take some of the pressure off of the early experience.

When they have had a few weeks of AR experience, we encourage them to try a center. We let them shadow a referee who has center experience. They have a whistle and may use it but if they don’t, the other referee is there to make the call. I have had new referees shadow me and it is so important that they know where to be to blow the whistle (loudly). Showing the diagonal system on a whiteboard is not the same as running a field and being in the right place to make a call. We also teach the dual system with shadowing for a few games. One new referee at the end of the spring 2012 season said, “I can’t believe you used to just send new referees out alone.” The old “sink or swim” method is not acceptable.

Who Are the Mentors?

I have chosen four of our outstanding referees who have trained with me for over three years to be our first team of mentors. They wear bright green shirts so they are visible on the fields. They not only assess new referees but they give pointers to our experienced referees who have become very interested in improving their skills. When our referees are ready we encourage them to get certified by USSF if they haven’t already and to do travel games in addition to the park district games. We encourage the next steps in upgrading after our referees have become old enough and recorded enough games. 

Referee Meetings

The referee meeting is held between one of our Saturday afternoon games. There are approximately 20-25 referees who attend the weekly gatherings. The mentors and I discuss the good, bad and the ugly that we saw that day. We try to pick a word of the day to think about: courage, anticipation, mechanics, participation or work effort. We sometimes acknowledge the loudest whistle we heard on one of the fields since that seems to be the thing coaches always mention. Each week we focus on an aspect of refereeing.

Future Planning

No program is ever finished. We will keep assessing our referees and we will keep searching for the best way to teach them to become successful referees. We will need to choose a few new mentors every year as some graduate and are replaced with our other outstanding referees. We need to study retention and see if having mentors increases the likelihood of referees continuing through high school and beyond. We will examine customer satisfaction — players, coaches, spectators and, of course referee, satisfaction. Experience and striving for excellence is a good beginning. 

Grace Schwanda, Wheaton, Ill., is the soccer referee trainer for the Wheaton Park District. is hosted and maintained by the National Association of Sports Officials.

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