Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Man in the Middle

Besides coaching soccer, I now referee a handful or two of youth games each season. My wife doesn't understand why, but I actually enjoy this aspect of the sport. Having played soccer all of my life--and having coached for much of my adult life--being in the center gives me a whole new perspective.

Even with the young ones, it's hard for me to keep up. My endurance is good, but I'm not very fast any more. Actually, even on my best days I never was very fast. Luckily, I can choose to call the small-side games instead of the ones on the full field most of the time. The three-referee system utilized for most games also minimizes the amount of running I have to do since I can rely on assistants to help call the sidelines and offsides.

This isn't actually me...
Today's game was played on a beautiful Bermuda grass field. Softer and flatter than any field I was ever lucky enough to enjoy as a player, the pace of the game was nearly perfect. It was a fairly high-level travel game so many of the players had gifts that I only dreamed of when I was young. I witnessed plays of remarkable dexterity: girls running off the ball with clear intent and their teammates finding them in stride; brilliant first touches; precise positioning; powerful and accurate shooting.

Early on, the ball went out of bounds last touched by the home team resulting in a throw-in for the visitors. A player--clearly not agreeing with my call--picked the ball up and whipped it off the field so it had to be chased down by a coach. Another time, I whistled a foul in front of the home team goal, and the same player loudly called out, "are you ever going to call anything against the other team?"

Both of these things happened in the first fifteen minutes of the match. The out of bounds call had virtually no bearing on the outcome and the foul was one of only two or three calls I had made in the whole game up to that point, so there wasn't much history to back up a claim that I was leaning one way or the other too precipitously.

Oh, and the player was a girl all of eleven years old.

There could be a lot of reasons why she behaved that way. She could just have been having an off day or wasn't feeling well. I don't know. What I worry about, though, is that a player so young has had examples set for her that suggest this is the way athletes and sports men and women act. If I had to bet, I'd say that was true. I wish it wasn't.

On the other hand--and lest you think that I'm just another person lamenting poor athletic behavior in youth sports--here's the really good news: in all of the games I've done this was one of a very few examples of anything less than grace and good behavior that I have witnessed. I believe that many people see outbursts like this one and categorically assume that it is the norm rather than the exception. My experience has repeatedly proven otherwise.

On this day, every other player I interacted with was having a blast, playing hard, testing the limits of the rules yet playing within them, and above all else competing as intensely as they could. They had the physical gifts and passion that make this such a beautiful game to play, to watch, to coach, and, yes, to referee. To be the man in the middle was an honor and a privilege, and I would do it tomorrow if I wasn't so tired...

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