Heartland Soccer builds capable, strong referees

JULY 2015 – In every soccer match there are actually three teams taking the field. There are the two teams most people immediately recognize – those competing to score more goals than the other.

There is also a third team made up of referees.

Although often unnoticed until they don’t perform well, the referee team is just as important to the match as either of the other teams.  And, just like the athletes on the opposing teams, the referee team is highly-skilled and rigorously trained.

Heartland Soccer Association employs 1,300 referees working leagues and tournaments.  Recognizing the importance of having quality referees, they have created the Referee Development Academy.  While that might seem like a large number of refs, Heartland could actually use twice that number.

“We need 2,500 to cover the games at the right level of refereeing,” said Heartland Executive Director Shane Hackett. “It’s a big undertaking. We are creating a soccer community. We have well trained coaches and world class facilities. We have an incredible group which is the second-largest (per capita) group in the country. We want to have the best referees, too. We feel the one thing to do is to create a culture where referees feel supported, an ecosystem where they can thrive.”

The program began last year and has grown with a focus on mentoring.

“The goal is to improve the overall refereeing,” said Kyle Atkins, Heartland’s Referee Academy Director. “We aim to create an atmosphere within the league that is conducive to our referees’ development. They noticed how successful it (mentoring) has been and developed RDAP as an extension. It covers all our refereeing effort.”

The program, which is free to all Heartland referees but aimed primarily at youth referees, has three main aspects:  the mentor program, tournament clinics and monthly meetings.

“The mentors meet with referees at least once per season and go over some of the things they’re doing well and some of the things they need to work on,” Hackett said.

Youth-soccerSaid Atkins, “Our goal is to reach every single ref over the course of the season for at least one game. We want to see if they show an excitement for the game and give attention to those who want to improve. Mentors have a select number of referees in their ‘flock.’  They mentor them and create that team atmosphere.  Our mentors are very vital to our referee development and we’d eventually like to see our referees become mentors themselves.”

Mentoring improves refereeing skills, but also helps build confident team members.

“We’re getting them to build their confidence,” Atkins said.  “Team-building is the kind of stuff we’re aiming to achieve with clinics and mentoring. Our mentors look over five to ten refs specifically to create a team within. Mentors get to know refs outside of soccer to build friendship so that when they go out on the field together, they are out there for each other.  If we’re able to achieve that our referees are going to be more confident.”

Tournament clinics take place at every major Heartland tournament. The referees will work a few games and then get additional training.

“We put on a ref clinic that is invitation only,” Atkins said. “We find referees with promise from the mentor program, bring in refs and give them specialized training, more advanced ideas. They do on-field activities and get extra special attention.”

The monthly meetings are a way Heartland helps to reinforce consistency among referees and to bring up topics of interest.

“We cover trends we’ve noticed in our mentoring,” Atkins said. “We gather that information and cover those specifically. And then we have training on special topics, too.”

Coaches provide on-line feedback, which is used to improve the overall refereeing quality.

“It’s supported by the member clubs,” Atkins said. “We have them help us by providing feedback after their games, positive and negative, and it’s an avenue for parents to provide feedback. We want it to be an atmosphere where it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s an environment where it’s OK if they fail. We’re understanding of that. It’s a lot like it is for players; they are allowed to make mistakes. That’s the only way they’re going to learn it.”

Referees, like players, will make errors, but they will also improve with experience.

“Players are granted a lot more leeway,” Atkins said. “Our refs are young. We’re trying to have parents understand there are going to be moments where our referees are going to get it wrong. We’ve had good responses from the clubs. They are fully behind what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re getting the clubs to buy into what we’re selling. They are happy to see what we’re doing. The majority of the feedback has been positive.”

The program specifically targets youth referees. Since the vast majority of referees are youth, many of whom are players or former players, turnover is high as those kids grow up or move on to college.  Heartland has improved their retention rate to 60 percent.

“Every year we lose quite a few refs, mostly with our first-year refs,” Atkins said. “That’s where we have the most turnover. If we can get them to come back after the first year we have a better chance to retain them. Our goal is getting them through the first season without hanging up the whistle. With our young guys it’s getting them to feel it’s a fun activity, to feel warmth, feel welcome. Every ref we retain equals more experience. With more mentoring and training, the quality of officials improves. That helps the game. With more knowledgeable officials, players can look to them with confidence, and they provide a safe environment.”

Atkins himself serves as a terrific example of youth referee training success.

“Kyle Atkins is a success story,” Hackett said. “He’s a pro MLS referee. We have multiple people at the pro level, but he’s the first at MLS.”

Atkins’ lengthy resume was upgraded in January to include “professional referee” when he was accepted into the ranks of MLS referees.  He began his career as a youth referee, at age 13, and experienced his own crisis moment early.

“I was reffing small-sided games at Black Bob Park,” he said. “One weekend I was doing a horrible game and had coaches and parents yelling at me. As a young kid, my confidence was shaken. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I packed up my bags and left. I walked home. My dad was waiting for me.  I told him ‘I don’t want to do this, I hate it.’  He told me ‘no, you honor your commitment.’  I fought him tooth and nail, but he said I had to finish today but if I wanted to quit after today, that’s OK.  He took me back out there and I haven’t stopped since.”

Atkins believes his experience isn’t atypical and that the longer a kid is willing to stay in the program, the more likely they are to have success and to get more out of the program.

Ultimately, the best way to train referees is to get them out on the pitch.

“The Referee Development Program is designed to educate and give training,” Hackett said.  “We feel that being on the field is the best way to learn and get experience.”

“We get them out on the field,” Atkins said. “It’s the only way they are going to learn. That’s the best way for these referees to learn. We encourage these referees to have a good team. They are all in this together.”

Heartland referees also get a glimpse at the referring professional side.

“Every season we have multiple referee opportunities at Sporting Park,” Hackett explained.  “Our refs meet with MLS refs for a chalk talk. They go into the locker rooms and see the preparation the MLS refs go through.”

There are a lot of good reasons to become involved in refereeing.

“I ask them ‘do you like traveling?’” said Atkins, whose refereeing career has taken him all over the United States, well as many places abroad. “Refereeing can take you all over the place. You meet a lot of great people and build friendships that last forever. You can make some money; it’s better than working at McDonalds. You get to be outside and it’s great being a part of the world’s game, a game we all love dearly. It’s extremely fulfilling as a referee.”

For more information about Heartland Soccer Association refereeing, visit www.HeartlandSoccer.net and select the “Referee Info” tab.

Article by Marc Bowman

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