Bermuda Triangle 06/28/2022

The Bermuda Triangle is an urban legend centered on a loosely defined region in the western part of the North Atlantic where a number of planes and ships are said to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Bermuda Triangle in our beautiful youth soccer game consists of three elements: parents, coaches and referees. It soaks up the beauty and fairness of the game, creates a toxic environment and causes an immense shortage of referees, and it’s not an urban legend.

I left out the most important element of youth football in the Bermuda Triangle: the players.

All other elements of the Bermuda Triangle serve the players. The players are the victims and not the villains of this toxic environment. In the older youth groups, some players rarely act like villains who challenge the referee, but the referees are there to manage them and control the game. It’s part of the referee’s art.

There is another triangle related to youth sports that has positive results unlike the Bermuda Triangle. “The sporty triangle consists of the coach, the athlete, and the parents, and the relationships within this triad can have significant psychological implications Development of the child.”

Let’s examine all three vertices of the Soccer-Bermuda Triangle:

The parents: In our youth football pay-to-play system, most parents are customers of the club. In this context, the players are the consumers. Exceptions are those parents whose children are playing either on a scholarship or for a free-to-play club. Since they are paying a certain amount of money – in some cases a great deal – they feel entitled. They have the right to yell at the referee, to demand more playing time for their children, to criticize the manager and the club. Unfortunately, most parents don’t know the game very well, as football culture hasn’t penetrated our sports culture as much as it has in other “soccer” countries. They sometimes look at the game from the perspective of other team sports.

The most toxic product parents deliver is the mistreatment of young referees. This abuse ranges from yelling at the referees to post-game bullying. Although very rarely, parents have been seen engaging in physical altercations with the referees. In turn, this aggression leads to a very low retention rate among young referees.

There are some very notable individual efforts to transform this toxic environment, such as Skye Eddy Bruce’s Soccer Parenting Association, whose mission is to “improve the game and enhance every child’s youth soccer experience by empowering parents, educating, empowering, be supported and endorsed”.

There are also organizational efforts by leagues and associations to curb this poisonous environment towards officials through disciplinary measures.

The problem between the parents and the coaches/club stems from the same sense of entitlement that is also fueled by the idea of ​​’win the game at all costs’ which is prevalent in all youth sports. Unfortunately, this is not unique in our country. Similar approaches can also be observed in other football countries.

The parent vertex can only be improved through the combined efforts of the club and other organizations. For example, a good starting point for clubs could be to teach parents some of the basics of the rules of the game.

The trainers: In our youth football landscape we have volunteer and professional coaches. Some of the trainers have licenses and certificates, some don’t. They are in the spotlight to develop the players. Whether they all know all the intricacies of player development or whether they know if they can implement them correctly is not the question in this triangle. The problem is the pressure they receive to either win the games or give more playing time from parents and/or the club. Since it is usually a non-profit organization, the elected club officer may give in to parental demands.

Pushed to win coaches could take their frustration out on the young referees who are their scapegoats. This also creates a toxic environment. Adults who verbally criticize teenagers and pressure them for their decisions. As long as the pressure to win persists, some coaches will stick to this side path. It is crucial to redefine player development in club culture. If the club can convince parents that player development isn’t just about developing their ball skills, but about improving their character, then a new non-toxic environment can be created. Clubs should create “Better Citizens, Better People and Better Players” in that order. That will also take a lot of pressure off the coaches.

Does the club have a club culture? Does the club have an age appropriate curriculum with a solid approach to player development? Does the club implement a player development philosophy?

Positive answers to the above questions or an attempt to affirm them improve the relationships between the three vertices.

The referees The referees – especially the young ones – are mostly seen as victims of this triangle. But is there anything we can do to help them so they don’t get sucked in by the Bermuda Triangle?

When I was teaching young referees in a face-to-face setting a few years ago, I always started the course by asking them why they wanted to be referees. Everyone had the same answer: “I care about the money.” Before they started refereeing, they didn’t realize the harassment that they could do their job for a few bucks. Most of them come from middle-class families. They can easily find another job that pays just as well or less, but without the harassment they face on the football field. Other young soccer referees in other soccer countries may have the ambition to serve in professional leagues as their driving force. I haven’t heard a single American teenager with that life goal. We need to create ‘carrots’ other than money so that teenagers can choose refereeing as a hobby. For example character development things like “learn leadership”. “Increase self-confidence”, “Be assertive”.

US Soccer recently raised the entry age for referees to 13. This was a positive move as I personally believe that every child under the age of 13 cannot handle the stress nor understand the LOTG well. To encourage new enrollments, US Soccer now has an online portion to teach the LOTG and an on-field portion for entry-level referees. They made the process easier, shorter, and more suitable for young children. From now on, the referrers and the state referee committees are the core. After completing their introductory course, these young referees are thrown before the lions.

The system must offer them mentoring and/or coaching during the first six months. This means that the more experienced arbitrators must be used in this process. Unfortunately, very few experienced referees spend free time to help the referees. So the system has to find resources to solve this problem. If not, most young referees resign after a year.

The other problem is the referrers. They are under pressure to find referees for many games. The demand is there, but the supply is not. Usually most of them don’t spend too much time on how to help young referees develop their refereeing skills but focus on filling the gaps. One way to solve this problem is to use single referees in most youth games, especially non-competitive and/or U14 and under games. This is also done in other football countries. Unfortunately there is pressure from the parents on the coaches and from the coaches on the club to demand a full squad as if they were playing in a professional league.

The other solution is for state refereeing committees to have more control over referrers and monitor them to prioritize referee development over filling in the gaps. So there are several things where the third vertex can work better to avoid getting sucked into the Bermuda Triangle. This time the responsibility lies with the system.

To summarize, so that the Bermuda Triangle does not devour the beauty and fairness of the game, does not create a toxic environment, and does not cause an immense shortage of referees, there are many ways and means to address the issue. For the two cornerstones (parents and coaches) the solution is to develop and improve our club environment, the last cornerstone – the referees – is the responsibility of our football system.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet.g@thegameplanners.com) is a Partner at The Game Planners, LLC and a former Secretary General and Chief Soccer Officer of the Turkish Football Association. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish Football Association. He has served as a panel member for the FIFA Referee Educators Panel and the UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a football consultant in Georgetown, TX.

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