If you had ever told me that I would issue a yellow card warning to an 11-year-old for dissent, I would have said you were crazy.  If you had told me that I would officiate a lopsided (6-1) boys high school game without having to yellow card one of those players, I would have been skeptical.  But both happened in the last two days.  The difference was totally based on the demeanor and attitude of the respective coaches.

During the little boys’ game, the blue coach would gesture and expostulate whenever a call went the other way.  I’m not talking about major calls.  I’m talking about whether an out-of-bounds was a corner kick or a goal kick, or whether a throw-in went to the orange team or the blue team.  Pretty soon, as you would expect, his boys started to imitate his behavior, whether they were on the sidelines or in the game.  In fact, I told one or two of them to stop doing that and to focus on the playing.  I probably should have talked to the coach about it, but his words were not very loud, and the gestures didn’t really interfere with the flow of the game.  There weren’t many fouls in the game, and I prefer to let the kids play.

Well, this kind of behavior is contagious, and a coach from the orange team loudly questioned one of my calls–yelling across the entire length and width of the field–and pretty soon the other team’s boys were also muttering about minor calls.  Finally, when I called a clear tripping foul on the orange team, one of the fellows yelled out “What!?” in a loud voice, clearly complaining about my call.  Needing an example for all, I called him over, and administered the yellow card for dissent.  He, abashed, said, “I’m sorry,” just like an 11-year-old would say.

The referees out there will have advice and thoughts on what I might have done earlier in the game, and may even have thoughts about the efficacy of yellow cards with the age of players.  But the point is that the coaches set the example and tone of this game.  Two excellent groups of young players who would have had a marvelous time in a tight match found themselves judging a referee’s calls instead of just playing the game.

A day later, I was officiating at a high school junior varsity game, where the blue team had clearly superior skills and ability compared to the white team.  As the score mounted, 3-1, 4-1, 5-1, the white players were getting more and more frustrated.  With boys this age, the result is often a kind of chippiness and undue aggressiveness.  The other team will then respond in kind.  Kids can get badly hurt at this stage in a high school game.  When I see it developing, I start to use calming words but also position myself ever closer to the play, so I can be on hand to calls fouls more quickly and with greater authority.  Such positioning also sends a message that someone is watching, so the fouls don’t occur in the first place. In this case, I was helped by the white coach, who had seen the frustration mounting, too.  He would say, calmly, “Focus on the ball, boys,” and other such things.  We got through the last fifteen minutes in the game in fine fashion, and the post-game handshakes were friendly and relaxed.  Again, a coach made a difference, but this time in a positive way.

After the little boys’ game, I talked with my high school aged assistant referee and expressed some dismay that the coaches of the top team in each town would behave in such a fashion with 11-year-olds.  He said he had mentioned the problem to another experienced referee with whom he had worked, who commented that there has been a gradual degradation of coaching behavior among the coaches of the under-9 through under-12 teams.  I don’t know how to validate whether there is such a trend.  I do know that it is an ineffective way to coach and teaches little boys bad habits that will get them into trouble in later years.