Ref Focus: What should Refs say to players during a match?

Soccer referee Ray Moffatte Jr. continues to visit with us about soccer referee topics in our Ref Focus series. I asked Ray to talk about the communication that does or doesn’t happen between referees and players during a match. Unless you’ve got really good ears, or a quiet stadium, you may miss the ‘internal dialogue’ that is a part of every match.

Ray Moffatte Jr. on talking with players during the match

Let me start by saying that I personally have a goal to say as little as possible when I’m on the field. Those who know me know that is hard for me to do. I’m one who likes to engage in conversation when given the opportunity. The best opportunity is to confront those who have a different opinion on any given subject. Thus you understand the dilemma I have every time I step on the field.

The ability to communicate as a referee covers a wide spectrum. There are those who say nothing. There those who say too much. There are some who let you talk to them. Then there are those who won’t let you say a word. The goal is to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The bigger goal is to use you communication skills that fit the game that you are working on game day.

Ray Moffatte Jr. writes down a yellow card. (Dale Garvey)

For me I try to gear my communication toward who I’m refereeing. There are young players who still need to be taught the laws of the game. There are players of advanced skills who think that they have an idea about how the game should be refereed. Finally there are college/professional level players who should have an idea how the game should be played and aren’t afraid to let you know about it.

The communication during the game will develop based on how the game progresses. For me the key is what happens during the pregame check-in. The one common thread is to establish why I’m here. Younger players need to know I’m in charge. Advanced players need to know that there is a way to communicate with me. College/Professional players need to know that I will let them play and protect them during the game.

With the younger players I try to take some things I’ve learned from Cy Palmer a long time referee from Pierce County who is known for his lively banter during the course of a game. I try to reassure players when things go wrong: a bad pass, missed shot or failing to trap a ball. I also try to complement a player when they do something positive on the field. Let a player know when they made a great play. If a great shot was taken, let a player know. If a player executed a great tackle, let them know about it. My favorite positive comment is to a goal keeper who just made a great save. It goes like this; “keeper!” When the keeper looks in my direction; I will give him/her a thumbs-up. When they return my communication with a smile or a nod; it makes my day.

Moffatte says communicating with players early on is crucial. (Dale Garvey)

With the advance player I establish how I want to be spoken to during the game. I’m a parent of a child who was a decent player; so I know what a good youth soccer player is and what they can do. I’m also a parent of a child who never ever raised his voice to me. I let the players know that during the check-in process, when you want to talk to me, just ask a question; don’t yell at me. Players for the most part are respectful. I know that there will be some emotional outbursts during a game and they are ok. As long as those outbursts are short and sweet they can be tolerated. When they become prolonged then we have a problem.

The College/Professional players are adults so they have to be dealt with differently. A little more one on one conversation is allowed as long as it is done in a respectful way. Because they are wiser about the laws of the game, I need speak to the players as oppose to speak at the players.

During the course of a game, opportunities present themselves to communicate with players. The ones that are obvious to those off the field are when players/coaches are upset with a call that is made. As I mentioned earlier, talking goes a lot further than yelling does. When they talk, I will listen and do what I can to adjust if necessary. If they yell, it’s going through one ear and out the other. At that point will do what I can to prevent it from getting to the dissent stage.

When spoken to I will use silent communication to acknowledge their concerns. A smile or a nod of the head goes a long way letting a player know that you are listening to them. Verbal communications with comments like: “I’m listening”, “I will keep my eyes open” and “I understand” let not only the player whose talking to me; but the other players as well.

I like to initiate the conversation when possible with positive comments when I can. It lets players know that I’m in the game. I try to use preventative communication when I see the opportunity as well. When the game starts to get a little testy and the challenges get a little rough; it’s important to do what’s necessary to keep thing under control. Physically I try to get on my horse and get closer to play. When tough challenges are made I will let player know; “I’m here” (yards away from the activity) to let them know that I’m close enough to make sure that the game will be played safe. When a striker makes a questionable play on a keeper where I don’t call a foul (allowing flow to the game), I will run up the field alongside the striker and let them know; “You need to be careful!” What better way to let a player know that I am watching them.

In our effort to manage player’s behavior, referees are being asked to use our personalities to keep players in check. We should be issuing yellow cards when other ways of keeping players under control have failed to work. Using the whistle is the initial effort of communication. A hard whistle goes along way letting everyone know that what just happened is not acceptable. If I want to get my point across I will isolate a player and try a soft word to curb their bad behavior by asking, “Why” or “Why would you do something like that” at a volume that only the player can hear.

When I want truly make my point I will raise my voice loud enough so all of the players on the field can hear. “We are not going to have this in our game today” or “I showed up to watch a soccer game and not a wrestling match!” If near the touchline I will try and speak loud enough for even more to hear. By doing so, if that player does more to draw my attention later in the game; the issuing of a yellow card will now be unexpected.

Like in Las Vegas, what is said on the field stays on the field! I can wait to read about what players say to each other.

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