Our 140,000+ registered soccer referees here in the United States are extremely fortunate to have professional peers from which to learn. While cheering on their favorite or hometown teams, aspiring referees can tune into Major League Soccer games for nine months out of the year and study how referees recognize foul play, take risks to maximize game flow, manage player behaviors, and apply the Laws of the Game. Television coverage of pro soccer has grown by leaps and bounds over MLS’ first two decades.
Just one request: Please don’t emulate the pro referees’ mechanics when they issue yellow cards. What works for them might not work as well for you…
When it comes to issuing cautions, our aspiring officials – especially Grade 7 referees working adult games at the amateur level (AGAL) and in particular those who fly solo (without assistant referees) – must consistently get it right, as their success in managing the game absolutely depends on it.
When giving cautions, we must get something meaningful in return.
Why do we “show” red and yellow cards, anyway? The colored cards were "invented" 44 years ago by Englishman Ken Aston to overcome language barriers by visually communicating to the game (players, coaches, spectators, broadcasters, etc.) when a player’s behavior has crossed the line… either to expulsion or to being put on notice. Yellow and red cards were introduced at the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, and have since become an integral part of the modern game.
Identifying misconduct is paramount to officials’ success – it’s our duty and responsibility to ensure the safety of all players. Equally important to misconduct identification is the means in which we deal with it. An effective referee consistently gets something valuable in return for the time and stress invested.
And just what is an effectively issued caution?
It’s one that has a positive effect on how the next segment of the game is played. And in some cases, it has a calming effect on the attitudes of the players… lasting all the way to the final whistle.
When we give a yellow card, what do we hope to achieve? What can we hope to get in return for issuing a well-timed and deserved caution?
Respect of the Cautioned Player: If you have made eye contact and delivered a firm (believable!) verbal message that this player needs to modify his behavior, then you’ve appropriately put this player on notice. If you’ve done it effectively, your message will be received, and you’ll achieve your desired outcome… the player will make an effort to maintain self-control when challenging for the ball. You’ve earned his respect!
Acceptance of the Victim: When a fouled player sees an appropriate reaction from the officials (immediate and with priority), he/she is much more likely to accept the decision and consider the matter resolved. We often see the captain or another teammate approach the fouled player, reminding him/her that the referee has taken care of it… no need for “pay back.” An effective caution minimizes the likelihood of retaliation and allows the creative player to again focus on creating scoring chances without looking over his/her shoulder.
Trust of the Teams: When both the offender and the victim are satisfied that the officials have dealt appropriately with misconduct, teammates of both are less likely to get involved. The effective issuance of a caution “hits the reset button” for both teams, and players realize that they don’t need to seek out a chance to retaliate.
Approval from “The Game:” None of us referee games to receive applause or cheers from spectators… or soft questions from pool reporters. But at the same time, knowledgeable spectators and writers can sense when a game is becoming testy, when players are taking greater risks when challenging for the ball, and when the teams seem to be willing to abandon concerns over punishment. I really enjoy sitting in an audience and seeing a spectator turn to a friend and comment about how he not only agrees with the referee’s decision to issue a caution, but how he finds it incredulous that the cautioned player thought we would get away with it: “Seriously, what did #2 expect the referee to do there?”
Seal of Approval from the Assessor: We shouldn’t change the way we referee to impress the game assessor, but if we do an effective job in issuing cautions, we will earn the respect of both the cautioned players and their victims, the trust of both teams, and a sense of approval from “the game.” And all of that, my friends, will earn you the ultimate seal of approval… a “thumbs up” from your assessor.
When we decide to “go to the pocket,” it’s not the time to cringe, hide or retreat into a shell… it’s a time for even the most diminutive referee to roar! Let’s face it, when we make the decision to issue a caution, all eyes move from the players to us, so it’s not the time to you to suddenly find yourself at a loss for words. Even mild-mannered referees need to show the heart of a lion when the inappropriate action of a player demands it.
So, what should we do to get the best outcome when issuing cautions?
For me, issuing a caution is a seven-step process that, when followed correctly, will ensure your survival, place your stamp of authority on “the game,” and remind those who choose to play outside the Laws that they do so at their own peril.
1. Give a stronger/longer blast of the whistle: Particularly if the ball is in play and you have identified a reckless challenge or a tactical foul, hit your whistle extra hard and extra long. Little fouls get little whistles. Big fouls (hard fouls, significant tactical fouls) get big whistles. Really, really long whistles suggest that “someone’s leaving!” (and turn heads from the adjacent field at tournaments!).
2. Add an Administrative whistle: After play has been stopped, some referees like to give an extra little “tweet tweet” when they have decided to issue a caution. Two quick staccato blasts tell the players “I’m not done… it’s more than just a foul this time” or “I’ve got something else… look at me.”
3. Evaluate for “flash point:” There are some – not many – situations wherein we know the game might just go up in smoke (and depending on how we react, our game control and assessment might crash and burn!). It’s that bad foul (not “red card” bad, but bad), or a pushing contest, or another act of intimidation or frustration… and your gut tells you “I need to get there and pull a yellow card FAST.” In these exceptions to the norm, you might be best served to do exactly that: sprint to the altercation, get your yellow card out and up as quickly as possible, and pray that enough players will hear you, see you and your yellow card, accept the decision… and hit the reset button.
4. Quickly isolate the offender: “Number 8 blue, over here please!” In most cases, we aren’t concerned about flashpoint, so our focus instead is on the mechanics of the spectacle. Gesticulate by waving an arm towards you – not by wagging or pointing a finger – assert your authority without belittling. Move the guilty player away from the pack (remember that every player who witnessed the foul or misconduct has formed an opinion, and if given the opportunity, they’d be happy to share it with you!), but don’t belittle the player by making him/her walk 10 yards to be closer to you. Meet the offender halfway, and keep the others (and their opinions) at a safe distance. “No, I don’t need to hear from you, number 12. I am having a chat with number 8, thank you!"
5. Show time: Lights, camera, action! The eyes of the game are fixed upon you. It’s time to maintain firm posture (head up and shoulders back) and when you address the offending player, keep eye contact throughout. Don’t look down, don’t look away, don’t look over his head (and if you have good routines about which pocket is for what, you shouldn’t need to look at the card). Gesticulate to help illustrate that you mean business: “No more of this nonsense, or I will send you off!”
6. Get to the point: Clearly state the reason that the player is being cautioned and that you expect the offender to modify his/her behavior, or risk being sent-off. Say what you need to say, but be clear in your choice of words. Avoid phrases like, “If you keep this up, you’re REALLY going to be in trouble!” (Why… are you going to tell his mother?). And never, never, never finish your admonishment with a question… this isn’t Final Jeopardy! “You can’t make tackles like that anymore today, OK?” OK? Why are you asking OK? Are you negotiating? Seeking approval from the offending player? State your case with conviction: “You are being cautioned for unsporting behavior due to the nature of that challenge. I need you to modify your behavior, because if you continue to make reckless challenges, you WILL be sent-off the field!”
7. Show the card like you mean it: Keep your posture tall and straight. Your facial expression needs to remain stern as your arm becomes fully extended – and remember to maintain eye contact with the offender. Hold the card over your head and slightly in front of you – not over the player’s head.
So, how do we develop this talent? What materials exist to guide us in how to assert authority and make a lasting impression? Back in 2010, the Regional Training Seminars assembled National and State Referees from across the country. The instructional material was too good not to share... then and today. “Command Presence,” a cutting-edge PowerPoint presentation that focused on non-verbal communication, body language, gestures, etc. was developed by Dr. Herb Silva, Brian Hall and others, and it explained in great detail the importance of reacting (“acting” or even “over-acting” at times) to demonstrate, among other things, our disapproval with players and their behaviors. The core of this material followed Mr. Hall to CONCACAF (and eventually to PRO), and he credits this emphasis for helping advance our region’s referees to their level of success at the 2014 World Cup. It you haven’t seen it, ask your State Director of Instruction for access to it!
I will close today’s discussion by calling for some introspection. Take a moment to reflect on your own 2014 season. Evaluate your style and command presence on the pitch. How effective are you at issuing cautions? What kind of reaction do you typically get from “the game” when you give a yellow card?