Have you ever wondered how refs get ready before a game?

Santiago, founder of Senda, had a unique chance to spend a week with CONCACAF referees, as they prepared for the Semifinals and Finals of the Olympic Qualifying Games in Kansas City on March 30th and April 2nd 2012. Below is his story.

When I was given the opportunity to work as a referee liaison last week, I jumped into it. Sure, working with a national team could have seemed more interesting. But the opportunity to see the game through the eyes of those who make some of the toughest calls during a match was more than enough for me! I was also intrigued about their training routine, mental fitness, and passion for the game.

And that is just the beginning…

Virtually everyone involved with soccer (as a player, coach or parent) had an experience in which they felt a referee was affecting their team in a “not so positive” way. Refs are often the first ones to be blamed when things don’t go as planned for a team, and the work that they do is rarely appreciated. Spending time with a group of 12 referees offered me the chance to hear their personal stories.

Refs stretch at a 7:30 am practice, 2 days before game-day. They won’t find out until the last minute who gets to referee which team.

I found a lot more similarities between refs and players than I ever thought I would!

Everyone in the group had a deep passion for the game, and had made a lot of personal sacrifices to get where they are today. Some of them played as kids, and a few did it at the same time they started to work as officials at very young age. They need to train hard, and also have that adrenaline rush before stepping into the field for a big game. In order for that game to go well, they need to work as a team, and make decisions in a split second. One more interesting similarity: they even receive medals after a final!

As it gets close to kick-off, their level of concentration and focus is very high. They all work together, to make sure that the field is just perfect for the game. Once the match is on, they all have radios they can use to talk during the game, and need to be alert every second to stay in control of any situation that arises. In many instances, someone will be unhappy with a decision they have to make, and let them know. Sometimes, it’s thousands of people, that will let them know on the spot…

I have been a referee at a handful of youth matches, and that experience showed me how difficult it is to work in a game with so many variables, and with so many people who are looking at you to make a decision in one second. I remember having to deal with parents and coaches, and even with a 9 year old player who cold me a “cheater” because I did not call an accidental handball (I warned him that if he called me a cheater one more time, I would give him a yellow!).

It’s hard to imagine calling a game with of thousands of people at a stadium. The level of support refs have is very small, mostly the colleagues they have on the field with them, and the instructors sitting somewhere in the stadium! You have to be very strong mentally to undergo such pressure.

This past week I spent with a group of high-level FIFA referees provided me an opportunity to understand better what they go through before, during, and after a match, and has made me respect them even more. To be honest, I will probably continue to get frustrated with referees while I am playing. But I will have much more appreciation for the work they do, and understand that sometimes they will make mistakes that are very hard to avoid.

I encourage you to think about that next time you are about to shout at a ref, and take that time to think about what your team can do better instead.

And if you want to understand them better, volunteer to be a ref at a game close to you. I can guarantee that you will have a lot more respect for these group of people who love the game as much as most of us do!

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