Youth referees - sharing thoughts

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I keep hearing in the news that there is a critical shortage of youth sports referees. This doesn’t surprise me - how about you? My daughter played hockey for several years. While sitting in the stands I’ve witnessed some pretty atrocious behaviour by parents and, sadly, grandparents. This, despite the fantastic initiatives developed to manage parent and coach behaviour that governing bodies have incorporated such as the Respect in Sport program. 

At the time, I remember a conversation with John, a youth mental health counsellor, one day at work before a meeting. His kids also played hockey so we would often chat about sports parenting. His strong belief was that kids should not be refereeing sports. Coaching - sure, mentoring - definitely but refereeing no. Period. End of story.

John argued that adults will always be in a position of power even when a young person is holding the whistle. He explained that adults hold a wide range of views of children and their place in the world. While many respect the concept of youth leadership development through opportunities which are conflictual in nature, others can’t see past another child making decisions impacting their own child. Based on this, John felt for a young referee, the risk of abuse outweighed the potential benefits. 

I was really surprised at the time because I felt his views were extreme, however as my daughter declined to take up refereeing when she became age eligible, I was secretly relieved. I loved the Association that she played for and believed in their training program, however having heard the many comments, deep sighs and even yelling by adults in the stands while watching her games, I wanted to shelter my daughter.

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When the time was right a few years later my daughter gave refing a go.

It was a positive experience for her.

This problem is not unique to hockey. I think it is likely that if you are involved in youth sports you too have witnessed poor behaviour towards young refs--regardless of the sport. The bottom line is that associations and governing bodies are having to expend significant energy monitoring and teaching respect and self-regulation. I wonder: should they have to be?

I am not sure where I fall in this conundrum and my comments here are based on my own personal experiences primarily with the sports of soccer, hockey and volleyball, however I have watched lots of games and witnessed this behaviour in all three sports, both club and school. As Stephanie Kennedy and I discussed in our interview last week on sports parenting it is really a few bad apples who are having a big impact.

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How impactful are signs like these?

They seem to be cropping up everywhere.

I have seen some amazing, confident, brave youth referees out there commanding the ice, court or pitch. The life lessons they are building are invaluable. These are young sports leaders learning new skills while providing a valuable service. Officials are crucial to the operations of any league. They are mentors to the kids they are officiating as well as to the parents watching and coaches on the sidelines. Without them, I don’t believe that change will happen. But I do worry about them. And think that we as a sports community can do better.

This week, we get the perspective of 13 year old soccer referee Abby who describes her experiences and offers some awesome advice to fellow refs, coaches and parents. She is amazing and we all need to thank young people like her for stepping up to the plate every week to promote the values that should be implicit in youth sports: It’s about the kids NOT the adults, it should be fun & it is about building good people at the end of the day.

I would LOVE to know your thoughts on this topic. What works? What doesn’t? What are the solutions?

Nadia KybaComment