Mind the Bench: Managing Misbehavior

All Suited Up, Fit, Thinking Little to Do?

“Snap, just got only Alternate Official (AO) assignments”. Feeling slightly disappointed about being left out of the action? “Heck, but it is an easy buck.” If these imaginings flicker and are extinguished, you’re in the proper state of mind to professionally fulfill your NISOA obligation for all participants in upcoming games. Put ego and envy aside and embraced the most-important 4-letter words, “TEAM-WORK.” The GAME will benefit from your difficult work as an AO, and you will leave it better than found!

AO, aka Virtual Referee!

Many referees would naturally prefer to be the Center of a contest, just as players work hard to be in the Starting 11. Kudos, you know better to never feel like a 4th-rate and inconsequential member of the Referee CREW. Coaches mentor their subs that they will be called upon later to play a critical role in the match; WAIT for it. They are told to play every ball from outside the touchline in their MIND. As AO, you must do the same, albeit without whistle or flag, at-the-ready to assist YOUR TEAM MATES as needed. Your tools will be self-confidence, composure, reason, wit, and the mindset to ensure the spirit and letter of the rules.

Beyond Pumping Balls, Recording Cards & Subs

As great Referees anticipate play, you’ve probably deduced from this subtitle that this article will not focus on administrative/functional AO duties. Many have written step-by-step mechanics on how to perform them. What follows are suggested best-practices learned on how to perform your major, albeit somewhat abstract, AO duty: Mind the Bench.

Mind Control: Yours First

AO interactions with bench personal are up-close, hopefully not personal, for the duration of a match, with nowhere to run or hide. Could say you represent a real-time Service Rep for the local Referee Complaint Department (ah, humility!). Hearing no complaints, enjoy the game!

So what’s there to do? First off, provide personal support for your teammates running around with the players keeping the game safe, fair, flowing, and fun. Job #1 is to listen to verbal feedback from bench personnel, understand its intent, and judge if its decorum conforms to respect for authority. Given the desire to win and passion of soccer, you could very well experience a hurricane of roaring, directional, and inappropriate rhetoric.

Job #2 is to courageously step into the eye of the storm as a soccer diplomat to restore tranquility. It’s a head game, where people management and psychology rule. It will test your mental toughness and patience, the limits of which only you know and can control. Not a key participant in the game and an easy buck now? Accept the challenge!

When to be Passive = Listen?

As players just caught for a foul look for the whistler, bench personnel will look to you. How do you decide when to switch from passive to active bench control and the tactics to apply? Know that you are not seeking to pick your battles but seeking your opportunities.

First, evaluate any remarks in terms of degree of attention needed. Was something said out loud, effectively to themselves, merely to vent frustration because their team was not playing well and even an obviously correct decision went against them? No harm. Did a coach step slightly outside the technical area merely to reposition players? No foul. Read the room. Long-distance listening and reticence, with perhaps a sideways glance and/or palm-down gesture, may be all the accommodating actions needed after trifling comments. It satisfies the human trait that everyone likes to know they have been heard.

Other comments might be ignored if their volume and word choice are benign. Advise against hearing evil behind every blade of grass (criticism). When coaches and players appear to have a point, be honest and concede without eroding the referee team’s credibility. We always can and will do better; we are human, too.

The best general advice is to apply the same sequential considerations used for deciding the when/what/why you whistle the 1st-foul or issue the 1st-caution in a match, blended with those for persistent infringement. You may be thick-skinned and can absorb some criticism, but only up to a point. Other referees may have a lower tolerance/threshold; consider and respect them. If you believe bench control is not being compromised and no disrespect meant/felt, stay passive may be the best course of action. Allowing minor misbehavior may actually relax emotional tension. Ever not issue a caution for game control? Spirit of the game.

When to be Active = Stroll & Chat?

There are typically two types of dissent requiring a slow walk over to a coach for a quiet 1-on-1 chat. The first comprises dissent after an allegedly incorrect call. Ask the coach try to explain how and why it was a bad call. Listen to what was apparently seen from the touchline. Usually, if what was thought seen were true, the call could certainly could wrong. However, explain something slightly different was probably seen by the Referee based on position / viewing angle. Hence, could have called it both ways! Win-Win.

The second type comprises perhaps an ulterior motive, dissent after a close, but apparently correct call, which the bench is arguing. The intent here is not to argue that last call, but a veiled attempt to influence the next 50/50 call in its favor, aka, gamesmanship. Support the Referee’s call with the same reasoning based on positioning; agree to disagree; and return to your neutral position. Congratulations…. You just performed referee gamesmanship!

When to Firm, Fair, then Final

Passive remote control definitely switches off when dissent gets offensive and/or personalized. Classic trigger words include but are not limited to nightmare, circus, clueless, and referencing eyesight or intelligence. This is your first call to action.

Your immediate response comprises loud, short verbal commands, such as “Coach; enough; no more; stop; please calm down now!” Take a couple of steps closer to the dissenter; give a hard stare; and then step back. If after giving this lifeline the taunting continues, time for a harsh public house call. Do not be baited; become defensive; or go over emotionally hot. Remember the AO is required at all times to be the voice of reason and have a surplus of composure. The AO earns the full game fee in these interactions.

Proper procedures include listening; eye-to-eye contact; a poised threat-free approachable demeanor; and speaking with low, slow, matter-of-fact sentences; no sarcasm! Don’t encroach personal space or make gestures. Don’t try to out-know them. You came to cool not enflame emotions; debate; or incite an argument. Listen and consider the coach’s position, without interruption. Let the coach finish before replying. Don’t talk over each other. Useful messaging includes “What’s your point; understood; thanks for your feedback; we’ll deal with it; now please let us both do our jobs; you coach, we referee.” Know when you accomplished your goal and then walk away.

Never forget that anytime during turmoil like this you have the option of call-in backup, your Referee, who will stop play and come over to deal with the misconduct. Para-phasing Rule, “Showing dissent by word or action to decisions made by the Referee” merits a caution. Par-phasing Rule, “Engaging in hostile or abusive, harassment, threatening, or obscene language” merits an ejection. Any decision to take disciplinary action is reserved for the Referee after consulting with the AO.

Forbidden Topic

A coach quietly calls you over to ask if you agree with the Referee’s last decision. DANGER! Only intent is to try to divide YOUR TEAM! Don’t be flattered or fooled into thinking you’re thought of as a better Referee than the one with the whistle. Deflect by again saying you were not in the same position so give the Referee the benefit of any doubt. You have been calling the game along with the Referee, but mentally and to yourself, and might have a different decision. However, you may NEVER question/refute a teammate’s decision in a game (or in public). Mandatory reading: Referee Code of Ethics.

Post-match Self-Assessment

Realize that AO skills are quite similar to those of the Referee. However, as an AO, you have the advantage of more time to think before taking action. You interacted solo allowing Referee/Assistants to remain focused on play. How do you know if you did well? Your teammates will let you know. You will have relieved them of some off-the-ball distractions that decreased tension, that could have spilled over to the field players. You will have accomplished this by being a firm, fair, and friendly ally.

Interview for Future Referee Assignments

To summarize, performing well as an AO is all about attitude, courage, maturity, mental toughness, self-confidence, and being in-the-moment. Coaches and assignors will get to know you and will want these same qualities with you on the pitch with a whistle.

Carry On and Mind the bench! All the best for you in the upcoming 2022 season!

Jim Reuther, Worthington, OH, is a NISOA National Clinician, National Assessor, National Referee Emeritus; Robert Sumpter Excellence in Teaching Award Recipient: and Inductee in the Ohio Soccer Hall of Fame.

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