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Advice Apr 28, 2015

Hummer: Best way to keep soccer parents quiet while maximizing player development

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Their best player works a deft one-two down the far sideline with a teammate, finally getting in behind the fast defender who has owned him the whole game. It’s been an intense, high-paced affair, and his team is losing by two…or maybe it’s only one?

Likely spurred on by the adrenalin rush that usually comes with close proximity to fans yelling encouragement, the parents lining this side of the field could literally reach out and touch him if they wanted. FINALLY, he got behind his nemesis, and while the goal was at least 40 yards away, there was no one in site but the opposing keeper.

Remember though, that defender was fast! With his coach on the opposite touch line yelling, “Recover son! Near post!!” the speedster aims his retreat accordingly, “cutting the angle” in hopes of rendezvousing with the attacker again somewhere just outside the penalty area – the early stage of effective shooting range for this age group.

Eyes front, on his toes, and tucking his elbows and pumping the arms like their speed coach taught them last winter, he closes ground quickly. It works, and both players and the ball converge near the corner of the penalty area at the same time.

BAMB… UMPH… OOOHH… “That’s gonna leave a mark”…

The ball trickles from the scene and the goalkeeper calmly scoops the ball as a good samaritan might pick up a pair glasses landing at their feet after someone dropped them as they tripped and fell 10 feet away.

It’s a game scenario that happens every weekend in U10 travel soccer games all over the world, and is typically followed by a chorus of protest from both groups of parents, head and assistant coaches.

Most exclamations usually beginning with “come on ref”, though few really understand there was no foul at all, just a competitive effort for the ball. It was an innocent “coming together” of two players who needed no trophy to be on the line as motivation to win, they were just playing the game.

It’s a spark that can sometimes lead to a coach embarrassing themselves and otherwise adult-like and civilized parents coming as close to a “fight” as they have since they were 16. And if any one of them saw and heard themselves on video, they’d be rightly ashamed of behaving the opposite way they brought their own up to be like.

But this time was different.

The only thing uttered from the parent sideline in fact, after the “ooohh’s”, was “Are you okay?” The 10 year olds popped up, the coach of the attacking team yelled “great run, play-on” before addressing a coaching point with players closer to him having do with supporting the attack. The other coach yelled to his gallant defender “great recovery!” and then implored the defender nearest him to get wide and ask for the ball from the keeper.

…There was no whistle.

…There was no embarrassing tirade by a coach.

…There was nothing said by a parent that they wouldn’t say to each other at a neighborhood birthday party.

Why?

There was no referee on the field at all.

This game was part of the bi-annual Club Champions League ScrimmageFest, where the coaches are in charge, no scores are kept, and teams can even lend players to one another if they really need or want to…and no referees needed.

The environment is as close to “pick up street soccer” as you’re likely to see in America while still benefiting from the administrative organization of designating opponents, field locations, and kickoff times.

+ READ: Club Champions League ScrimmageFest features ‘street soccer’ atmosphere for U9s, U10s

The event is limited to u9s and u10s from any of the 16 member clubs of the CCL. Without the pressure of winning, there was no real need for referees. The atmosphere was truly community-like.

The whole point is for the kids to DEVELOP their game without the pressure of winning – a pressure which is only amplified when a stranger in yellow stops the game every time there’s a “coming together” of players who pretty much wouldn’t know how to intentionally “foul” one another if they tried.

Were there things that happened that would have been called if a referee was SOCA-Arlingtonpresent? Of course. In some cases they were called by coaches, but most cases the players were encouraged to just “play on” as they would by default in the playgrounds of Brazil or France.

ScrimmageFest is an environment designed for teaching, and while the player may be the primary target for that learning, coach and parents learned a lot too.

Not everyone got things right 100% of the time of course.

I did witness a player attempt to “take out” another player from behind with a flying slide tackle, that fortunately missed. No call. It happened RIGHT IN FRONT of the parents of the attacking team that would have been fouled, and not a single one said a word. Do parents really need a referee to recognize dangerous play? I hope not, but that’s what it seemed like on this occasion. It happened quite far from the coaches, but the player should have been pulled and educated that “that’s not how we play this game.”

I also witnessed a game where a coach called a PK on his own team (rightly so). Then after getting scored on, his team immediately got into the opposing penalty area, where their player was absolutely wrecked… No call by the other coach. The unwritten rule was coaches call fouls for their own team, but rather than throw a fit, the other coach just shook his head with rye smile, slightly acknowledging the other coach didn’t “get it”.

And some parents were still out of line, but it wasn’t a chorus of angry protest towards a call or an outcome. Some are just bad parents, who can’t separate the abilities and performances of their own children from their own insecurities or competitive fervor. These parents are deceiving only themselves thinking they are there to truly support their son or daughter; when it’s clear they are there watching the game as if it were a professional playoff and they had bet their home on the outcome in Vegas. That and/or their own son or daughter takes the brunt of their criticism – especially when there’s no referee to “take the blame.” Poor kids. They’re the ones that will either quit early, or be “top” youth players then quit or burnout in college when they’re finally out from other their parents’ “motivational” support.

+ READ: Five mistakes soccer parents make with their players

Regardless, every case above, and everything that happens in an environment like this lends itself toward teaching, and that’s what us adults really should be doing with our youngest players more than anything. Learning was happening in droves at ScrimmageFest, and it was a pleasure to witness overall. Without the constant interruption of a referee’s whistle and the near constant protests of each stoppage from one end of the sideline or the other, the players could finally hear each other, and their coaches.

This story isn’t intended to knock referees. But I do hope it makes the point that without them, the opportunity to learn the game can be much greater so long as rational adults keep things safe. CCL should be congratulated for their commitment to this format, and they’ll hopefully expand the idea in the near future, while other leagues (and even tournaments?) follow suit.

And when the referees do re-enter these young players’ lives, let’s hope they swallow their whistles a bit more, and let the kids play. Parents will need to cooperate of course, but usually they just want things consistent. Both need to do a better job at understanding that every time two kids bang together going for ball is not a foul. As long as the powers that be protect players’ safety and penalize cheating, the should let the rest just “play on”!

+ READ: Multiple aspects of club building on display at CCL ScrimmageFest