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Get up early Saturday and yell at me

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I was doing three indoor soccer matches last Saturday at Coverall starting at the crack of dawn, and called a girl for kicking the feet out from under another girl. The alleged fouler's coach erupted at me, yelling that the alleged foulee had stepped on the ball.

So I dutifully trudged over to the bench to the coach and let her chew me out --- among the many and contradictory directives I've received as a refree, is one saying we should hear out coaches, that if they're outraged, it's probably because we blew a call. Then I went back, didn't change my call, and resumed play.

Sigh.

The paper writes these stories occasionally about promoting greater respect for game officials in minor sports, coaches taking courses in appropriate respectful behaviour, parents stepping forward if a coach or parent is abusing the referee or umpire, and that's all well and good if the ref is a 13-year-old being bullied by an adult at a nine-year-old match.

Don't kid yourself, I get a lot of grief in some matches -- some matches, mind you, , certainly less than half the matches, maybe less than one-third of the matches, but when I get grief, no one's stepping forward waving respectful behaviour policy manuals.

Saturday was weird. I had three matches of 12-year-old girls at the recreational level, and usually pre-teen girls in kick-and-chase rec soccer commit very few fouls through aggressive play, and rarely mouth off to me.

At times I thought I was refereeing 15-year-old boys driven mad by testosterone, the fouls were coming so frequently. When play is an abberation of the norm, chances are kids have been taught to play that way.

I know we're deep into playoffs, and that a win or loss or even draw at this stage can be critical to having a shot at playing in a city championship game, but the yelling the coaches and parents were doing at these little girls was well beyond normal. And at me, too, it goes without saying.

Halftime of one game, coach comes up to me to complain that his daughter says she's been hammered into the boards constantly throughout the first half and I've done nothing about it......And here I am running up and down the field at my advanced age to stay within a few feet of the ball, and blowing my whistle quite often, and gosh, how in the world could I have missed all that brutal violence conspiratorially directed at just one girl out of 24?

A kid comes up to me, demands that I start calling the opposing team for swearing. I told her I'd call it if I hear it, and allowing just the teensiest trace of irritation to creep into my voice, told the player that she's got a five-goal lead and maybe she should concentrate on protecting the lead.

I'm giving my pre-game instructions one match last Saturday, remind the girls that there's no shoulder-to-shoulder contact allowed in indoor soccer, and yet again get incredulity from the coaches, who say in shock that they've never heard that one before, and am I making this up on the spot? Page eight of your indoor rule book, I reply, it's in full caps and boldface so that it jumps off the page at you. Said it, it goes without saying, with nary a trace of sarcasm.

Timekeeper tells me he's overheard one bench complaining that I'm not blowing my whistle when the ball goes up on the mesh on the sides and out of play. You're not supposed to blow your whistle, you signal the possession for the indirect free kick, and only whistle when it's close and the players continue playing the ball. And the TK says they're also complaining that I'm calling too English a game.

Come again?

I should hope I'm calling an English game, since I'm a Geordie lad and all. What in the world does that mean? That anything short of bloody, bone-breaking mayhem is acceptable to me? Because that's the way it's called in the Premiership.

Sigh.

Which all leads up to the most delightful few minutes of the three hours I spent at Coverall. One team is defending its goal, an attacker takes a shot from outside the box, a defender who's about 10 yards away from the shooter and just in front of her net throws up both hands at eye level and blocks the shot. I call hand to ball, and award a penalty kick.

The parents freak out, screaming that a girl has the right to protect herself.

And girls certainly do. I constantly yell "Protecting!" when a girl has a ball blasted at her breasts from two yards away and protects herself with her hands, and I call ball-to-hand most times in all my matches when half the arena is yelling a kneejerk "Handball!"

This was 10 yards away, and at eye level, plenty of time for her to duck, plenty of time to play the ball with her head if she had the skill. This was a case of a defender's using her hands to block a shot on goal, and I put the ball on the penalty spot.

That's when one father turned up the amplifier to max and yelled "Referee!!! Your calls are (two-syllable word, first syllable the English translation of taurus, second syllable, a vulgar word meaning excrement)!!!!"

So I stop the game, and over to the defending team's bench I go, where the coaches are not exactly thrilled with me. I told them that I needed one of them to go around to the spectator side, get the referee liaison, and calm down this father and ensure that his outburst won't be repeated. And we hold up the game, clock running, until they calm the guy down, and all this time his 12-year-old daughter is watching.

And all of that was just one Saturday morning, with 12-year-olds playing at the lowest recreational level.

Sigh.

My favourite expert on child welfare raised something recently with which I agree: rarely do I have problems on the field with violence and dissent, when the coaches are calm, cordial, cheerful, and collegial, as the vast majority are, and speak only to encourage their kids. The play on the field usually reflects the coaches.

I've been a coach, soccer parent and referee since 1996, and by now I know what the type of play and behaviour is in each age group, gender, and level of competitiveness. When something's well outside the norm, it's usually because one or more adults has made a conscious decision that it'll be that way.

When I coached, both boys and girls, we knew that once or twice a season we'd encounter a team whose rough play was off the charts. I remember one evening carrying my son off the field and taking him to the hospital to have his ribs x-rayed, while the opposing team's coaches high-fived the kid who'd put him out of the game. He was 11.

But I digress.

Developmental is the level for 11-and-12-year-olds deemed most likely to be playing premier, regional, and even provincial in a year or two: high skills, very fast, compulsory and frequent practices, attendance at skills training clinics run by the guys in spiffy track suits.

But usually not all that much fouling, and given that they're prepubescent for the most part, not a lot of guff.

I had a recent 11-year-old developmental boys' match in which I was on my whistle almost from the kickoff, calling fouls for pushing, bodychecking, grabbing, elbowing, all the while warning kids for lipping off to me and for doing the drama class bewilderment and the oh-the-injustice-of-this-wretched-world routine when I called them. Players kept deliberately lining up over the ball to prevent an opponent's taking indirect and direct free kicks, and mouthed off when I warned them that I was running out of patience telling them to give the required five meters.

Late in the first half, one team committing most of the fouls, I finally carded a kid for deliberately standing over the ball to prevent the opponent's taking a direct free kick from scoring range after a hard foul, a coach from his team hollered at me, "This game isn't about you, ref!"

It's not? Look at all those people sitting up there in the bleachers, half-asleep and clutching their takeout coffee, they obviously dragged themselves out of bed before dawn and down to UM to watch me.

And on he goes, "Come on, you've got to let them play the game!"

How original. That's the common refrain when someone wants to commit fouls without consequence. Was I dogmatic? Yes, if that means enforcing the rules. I told the coach, "They can play all they want, within the rules."

And harumphed with self-righteous indignation, and haughtily decreed that play resume.

The boys had clearly been taught to play beyond the rules, and I suspected that the coaches' reaction was part of a strategy to intimidate me into giving the players an edge over the opposing team, which was generally playing within the rules, and made no protest when I called fouls on them.

Another recent weekend, I'm reminding the teenaged boys about the no-contact rule indoors, and I had a premier coach tell me, "Come on, you can't be serious. You have to use some common sense and let these kids play." And then proceeded to yell at me every time an opponent had any contact regardless how insignificant with his players. At halftime, over comes his coaching partner, who asked to talk to me. I said he could, if he was reasonable about it. He told me that I'd told them I wouldn't allow shoulder to shoulder, and then I allowed opposing defenders to spend 30 minutes knocking his players off the ball.

I had one Coverall game in which neither team had an indoor ball -- Coverall doesn't allow the use of outdoor balls, unlike UM and Seven Oaks, where it's the home team's choice. Yes, it is, read your rulebook, all of that is right at the front. One coach did the I'm-a-referee-and-I'm-going-to-tell-you-what-to-do-here routine. I told them I was not about to abandon the match, that I'd use common sense and we'd play with an outdoor ball, but if the facility manager objected, we had to either scour the arena for an indoor ball, or abandon the match.

I refused to talk to a coach at the end of a 16-year-old boys' recreational match several weeks ago, or rather refused to undergo an infuriated interrogation, and the livid coach said he was filing a complaint about me. I'd given two of his players yellows, one for constantly chirping at me for calls against teammates, and another for a harsh contact foul. Couple of minutes to go, his team's down three or four, a player on either team got into it and I thought the two lads were about to drop the sticks and gloves and helmets and go all Colton Orr on me. One player accused the other of a racist remark, which I hadn't heard. I gave both a yellow, got them off the field so I could defuse the situation and they could cool off, and we could finish up the match without having a fight break out.

But at the horn, this losing coach charges out onto the field, intercepts me at mid-field, gets right in my face and barks, "You called a really bad game out there!" He followed me to the timekeepers' bench, continuing to berate me and demanding that I explain to his satisfaction a series of calls which he didn't like. This went on for several minutes, while I refused to talk to him and told him to leave the field.

Meanwhile, one of his players came by and told me with all the sarcasm and contempt he could muster, that I'd called a really great game. We added a yellow for him on the scoresheet.

I haven't kept track, but I probably give cards in less than one-third of my matches, though when they come, it's usually more than one in a match. In the close to 300 outdoor and indoor matches I've done since May of 2007, I'm thinking that when coaches and/or parents threaten to file a formal complaint about me, chances are that I've disciplined kids on that team for violence and dissent, and that the coach has given me more than ample grounds to boot him or her out of the match.

And for all of that, the abuse I get as a referee still doesn't even begin to compare with what I went through in 10 years as a minor soccer coach. And I get to run for hours, and play a small part in helping a generally great bunch of kids get exercise and enjoyment.

See you Saturday morning at Coverall.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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