Youth Soccer and Fouls
In a youth game, two players are challenging for the ball when one player falls to the ground. What the parents of the down player saw was a foul, illegal play, and something that the referee should be whistling in their favor. Parents of the other player saw a legal challenge, the player tripped over his own feet and there should be no whistle blown. What did the referee see?
Unlike what players and parents see in training films, television, and the like, the dynamics of a youth game are much different than the higher and professional levels.
At the younger levels, parents and spectators are not, in general, well experienced in soccer. At this level, most adults are learning what the rules of soccer really are. Parents are naturally protective of their child and tend to see what their own child does as acceptable and what is done to their child as unfair. As their child grows older, parents grow in experience as well and learn more about what is acceptable and fair play.
Players at a young age have little knowledge of what a foul is and are learning the basics of what is acceptable and what is not. At the same time they are learning to control their bodies and many challenges are “unfair’ not because they are trying to cheat but because they lack the control of their own bodies. At a young age, players can often be seen falling down even though there is no other player around them and they trip over their own feet.
As children grow older, their soccer skills improve and they have more control over their own bodies. Since children improve and grow at different rates, the skill level within a game may vary greatly. As players join new teams they also find themselves with teammates with more or less experience. This can cause problems as the more skilled and experienced players may dominate play and take advantage of the less experienced players. That dominance will cause other players to try hard to stop these players and create situations where sorting out fair from foul play can be difficult.
The referees of these younger age groups are faced with several roles. The major role is to keep players from hurting themselves, being hurt and hurting others. While trying to improve, some players may be influenced by trying to emulate older more experienced players and may be trying to play at a level beyond their own skills. This may lead to players unintentionally hurting themselves and others.
Another role of the youth official is to teach the Laws of the Game. At the youngest levels it means that the referee may actually stop the game for a “careless” foul and explain to the player that what they did is not considered fair play.
Ultimately, referees are the guardians of the Laws of the Game. They must balance the need to keep the players safe and the game flowing while teaching what is fair and not fair play.