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How Young is Too Young?

How Young is Too Young? (Courtesy of PWSRA) 

It’s the fifth week of the season and my offers to "Suzi" to work games expired without her responding to them. It has become clear to me that Suzi is no longer interested in refereeing although she cannot bring herself to admit it or at least tell me. Indeed, she herself may not know. Suzi is just 13 years old. 

The United State Soccer Federation (USSF) has no minimum age to become a Grade 8 or Grade 9 referee. Simply attend the course and be able to pass the test. In Virginia we have a Child Labor Act which prohibits children under the age of 12 to be paid for refereeing so that has become our minimum age of reffing. But is that old enough? 

I have been around both refereeing and assigning long enough that I have recognized a clear pattern. Twelve is simply too young to start. Let me list the reasons why. 

Most clubs start new refs as assistant referees on a few games before expecting that they will be able to handle the clubs’s "U-Littles" games, typically, U10, U08 or even younger. How many 12 year olds are ready to be the person in charge? 

Add to that, most players and many adults who are recruited to be coaches so their child can play, do not know the game. They expect that the referee will know the Laws inside and out and assist with explanations. How many 12 year olds can explain the Laws to an anxious adult? 

Compared to older youth, most 12 year olds have little confidence in their ability to referee and their knowledge of the game. Plus they have "thinner skin" too. Not excusing any comment made by an adult but even the most innocent of comments to a ref about a game may be interpreted wrongly by such a young person. 

At 12 years of age, the expectations are more unrealistic than for older youth starting. Mix unrealistic expectations with little confidence and what we end up with is a referee who starts great but soon finds that it isn’t fun. At least it’s not what they expected it to be. 

As a result, many 12 year olds will get through the first season but we find that they do not get excited about returning the next season. Anecdotally, they seem to have a lower return rate than other age groups. Rare is the ref who starts at 12 and is still reffing even three years later. More likely though is the ref who starts at 14 or 15 and will keep with it. 

In addition to managing a game, even a simple game, referees have other responsibilities that they must complete. In our association, they must block their calendar for dates they are unavailable to ref. They must check their email at least once every three days and accept or reject game offers. If they accept games, they then must honor the commitment to officiating even when their friend calls Friday night looking for someone to go to Kings Dominion the next day. After the game they must file a game report. Most need a parent’s help achieving some of these and all need parental help with transportation. 
Ultimately, the choice is up to the aspiring referee and their parents. Our counsel is not to start at age 12 because we simply have seen more fail than succeed. We think that it’s best to wait a year or two then start at an age where they will be more confident and, unlike Suzi, want to come back the next year. 
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Loudoun Soccer does not discriminate on any factor including age. We strongly feel that 12 year olds should wait a year or two so they will be in a better position to succeed. We simply ask that parents who may push their children, or 12 year olds who think they're ready to take on the world, step back and consider the track record of the 12 year old refs before you. Very few continue after a year or two. However, if you certify we will do our best to help you succeed.