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Tournaments Oct 16, 2015

WAGS Tournament Referee Mentor Program developing next generation of officials

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The sidelines at the Virginia Youth Soccer Association (VYSA) Training Center and FFC Park in Fredericksburg during showcase competition at the 2015 WAGS Tournament were not only occupied families and college coaches, but also with current and retired referees for FIFA, the English Premier League, Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League, among others.

Once again, the WAGS Tournament Referee Mentor Program provided up-and-coming officials with personalized guidance from a wide collection of current and retired world class refs over Columbus Day Weekend. Every referee in the program was mentored on a game-on, game-off basis, with individual assessments from members of the mentor crew providing them with two or three pieces of feedback after each match.

It is a platform for both referee development and scouting, and has garnered a glowing reputation as one of the premier mentoring programs in the country at the youth level, according to Rob Fereday, a former FIFA and MLS referee and assistant referee, one of the leaders of the mentor program.

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“The referees leave with a gold mine of new information and knowledge,” Fereday said. “Our mentors approach the game so calmly, and they go about things on the field in a way that provides our young referees with a model for how to carry themselves.”

While training sessions, seminars, and classroom courses provide referees with the technical knowledge needed to do the job effectively, like most professions there is no substitution for real world experience. This is what makes the mentor program such a useful tool, says Fereday, since the high level, fast-paced tournament matches provide plenty of situations for referees to attain ‘street smarts’ as opposed to the sometimes theoretical but not as practical ‘book smarts’.

CUST-wags-rvmt-2014“There are so many things that can’t be learned in a classroom, which you can only learn with real life experience like how to carry yourself, how to implement the rules on the field, and to be able to manage the unique situations that come up,” Fereday said. “The WAGS Tournament is a fantastic learning environment for all of these things because it’s a high level event with excellent fields, where the players and the coaches all understand the game.”

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One of the most experienced of mentors in attendance was Professional Referee Organization (PRO) Training and Development Manager Paul Rejer, a retired referee, assistant referee and linesman who has worked at the highest levels of the game. Rejer officiated international competition as a FIFA listed linesman from 1992-1994, and has worked as an assistant or referee at all 92 professional clubs in England. He was an assistant referee in the English Premier League beginning 1992, the league’s first season, and has also worked World Cup qualifying, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League matches in addition to a wide range of other prestigious competitions.

With decades of experience and some of the most well-trained eyes in the business, Rejer relishes the opportunity to seek out the most promising officials of the next generation.

“It’s good to be here and see if anyone has the potential to move up to the professional or international ranks,” he said. “It’s incredibly rewarding to be at a youth event and to see someone who you think has the potential. When we do we’ll monitor their progress for several years moving forward, and it’s really a fantastic feeling to see them reach that potential later on.”

Over half of the referees at the WAGS Tourney were female, which is by design considering it is an all girls tournament. However, referees and mentors were widely cross-gender, also by design, providing a diverse range of perspectives to maximize learning.

Brenda Wright, a retired FIFA Assistant Referee whose experience international experience includes the Algarve Cup and Nike U.S. Women’s Cup, said one of her main objectives is to help young refs find their way in a profession where the next best step for their career is not always easy to figure out, especially on the women’s side.

“We’re here to help referees achieve their goal of reaching the next level,” Wright said. “We bring an understanding of the process of what it will take to go from where they are, to wherever they want to be in the next few years. Meandering the system and the referee landscape can be hard, and I believe that women are pulled in even more directions than men, so it’s important to have a program like this for young women in particular.”

According to current PRO women’s coach and NWSL referee assignor, and former FIFA official Sandra Serafini, the process of creating more structure and more direction for young female referees is already gaining momentum, thanks to the sustained progress of the NWSL and mentor programs like the one at WAGS.

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“The WAGS Tournament Referee Mentor Program has a reputation now where we officials calling and asking to come here because they know the caliber of mentors we have coming in,” Serafini said. “A lot of times, we see officials a few months or a year later and they have taken their game to the next level, and major opportunities are opening up for them.”

Perhaps the No. 1 purpose emphasized across the board by the mentors was the camaraderie that is so vital on a macro level within the referee community and on a micro level within an individual match. A prime example of the tight knit circle within the world of referees is current eighth-year MLS official James Conlee, who recently completed his 100th match in the league. Conlee, who spent the weekend mentoring up-and-coming refs, was mentored by Fereday as he was climbing the ranks more than a decade ago, and they have remained close ever since. Conlee and fellow MLS referee Mark Geiger – who became the first U.S. born referee to officiate a World Cup match in 2014 – were both pupils of Fereday, and have both mentored at the WAGS Tournament.

Conlee said that the importance of the mentor-mentee relationship is as vital if not more for referees than in any other profession. Referees need to be on the same page more than anyone, especially when the stakes of the competition are high. Conlee’s main goal is to help continue that tight-knit culture for future generations of referees.

“We’re basically coaches, there’s no pressure on them and we’re not grading or scoring the referees, we’re just trying to make them better, and that’s what I like about it,” he said. “We’re like a family as referees, even though we’re from all over the country and all over the world, it’s a very connected community, and that’s what we are trying to continue with the next generation. I love it because I’m not an assessor per-say, I’m just another referee, so I’m one of them and that’s the best part.”

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