A New Year’s Resolution – lay off the refs!

I’ve got a New Year’s Resolution for us all – Lay off the referees, enough already!   I’ve heard all the excuses, and I’m sure you have too:  “We didn’t win because of that one bad call!”   “They are always biased against our team.” After a while, I all I hear is “Blah blah (excuses) blah blah (not my fault) blah blah (must blame someone other than myself) blah blah.”

I have coached soccer in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, and Oregon. Guess which state has the worst refs? It depends where you live!  Because those living in each state will claim it their referees are the worst.  How about some perspective?

Read any message board comments section about a controversial call or a “bad game” by the officials – the fans rarely ever agree on good calls/bad calls, and that’s with the benefit of slow motion replays from numerous angles!  Even with the advent of instant replay in the NFL, there are still arguments.  How about some perspective?

In sport psychology, we teach and train athletes on mental toughness – how to build and maintain confidence, and how to re-build confidence over the course of training and competition. To do that, athletes must be focused on things that they can control over things they cannot.  And the referee is a big factor that is out of your control (others include the weather, field conditions, opponents, etc.).  Athletes need to know this, coaches need to know this, and sports parents need to know this. And we all need to act accordingly.

Do referees make bad calls? Of course they do.  Is it okay to be upset about it?  Yes it is.  How long is it okay to be upset about it?  That’s the key point!  The best athletes are able to let go and move on to the next play.  The best coaches are upset but do not blame the refs.  The best sports parents take “bad refereeing” as a part of the game, not something to rail about afterwards.

Do you make mistakes while playing or coaching?  Definitely.  Is it okay to be upset about it? Yes.  How long is it okay to be upset about it?  Not long! The best athletes are able to let go and move on to the next play.


The most mentally tough athletes get distracted from time to time, and even angry at referees. However, the ability to regain focus and concentrate on the right thing is an essential mental skill to perfect. Go into games knowing that all the calls are not going to go your way, and use a re-focusing cue to get your mind back where it should be. One re-focusing cue is to have a mantra (for example, “It’s a great day to rise above!” – once a perceived bad call is made, you may be angry, but use your mantra to re-focus your attention to a more positive mindset.


The video below is meant for parents, but I think we can all agree it’s applicable to coaches too.  The best coaches prepare their athletes for bad calls. They build a culture that includes expected behavior on handling things.  They lead by example.  Now, coaches often do have a right and maybe even an obligation to speak with referees during the game.  However, if a referee is ruining a game for you, you need to be able to handle this as well, otherwise you will reap what you sew in your athletes’ response.

sport psychology parents and refs

Sports parents can really help their athletes take responsibility for their actions and ownership over their performance by not giving them ready-made excuses – the refs being the main example of this.

On the sidelines, it’s okay to be a fan and to cheer and get excited.  I think it’s even okay to express a little frustration when a call goes against your team.  But for how long?  I suggest after a groan or “aw, come on!”, that you quickly re-focus your demeanor to more of a “nice try!”, “keep working hard!”, “you’ll get it next time!” type of communication.  That way, you help change the attention away from whatever atrocity has been perpetrated on you athlete, and on to how he or she can handle it.

After the game, do not bring up the referees.  If your athlete does, allow them to vent, but then gently steer the conversation back to things like how the player handled the situation, what could they do differently next time, and in the scheme of the game there are probably ten other things in their control that they can focus on.

Officials, umpires, referees – they are as Phil Jackson once said (half-jokingly, I assume) “a necessary evil.”  I ask players sometimes what would a game be like without referees?!  They are a part of the game, and how we as players, coaches, and parents handle them, is a crucial skill.  Let’s make 2016 the year where we lay off and handle it the right way?

Bonus – Here’s a video behind the scenes of MLS referees. It will give you a new perspective on how seriously referees take their craft.