Imagine volunteering for an hour only to disappoint everyone? Fancy giving up part of your weekend knowing you were going to be tutted at, shouted at and called names, accused of cheating and being blind. Referees are probably the unsung heroes of weekend grassroots games. It’s time to see us supporters and coaches on all sorts of sporting pitches express our gratitude that without a referee, sporting games don’t take place.

It is clear from recent press reports and this great piece of satire that sporting officials are finding it harder and harder to enjoy giving their time in the facilitation of sport. It is hard to keep our frustration at bay in an emotional game if you feel the whistle has unfairly gone against you, but our response to the human connected to that whistle tells our children a lot about what we value, and how we will treat them if they make a mistake. If it is said that the measure of a civilised society is the way it treats it’s poorest, is it the measure of our sporting character and values the way we treat the officials?

Here is a practical way to ensure that you treat officials in-line with what you value. This is a character-building activity which any parent or coach can organise. Here is what I did, at one of my son’s away games, I bought a thank you card and asked the parents to sign it. In the card, it simply read “Thank you for enabling our children to play the game they love.” It’s important that us passionate and committed coaches and parents remember that nobody makes 100% perfect decisions in any part of life. So referees are never going to do that on game day. For somebody who’s isolated and vulnerable in the middle, there should be plenty of encouragement, plenty of support, gratitude and respect. As I passed it around to sign, some parents joked by asking if they could sign it after the game to enable them to review how the ref did. This was met by me bluntly but jokingly responding that they deserve our gratitude regardless of ‘performance’. Our ref was deeply appreciative of the card after the game.

Youth sports has a problem with the expectation of perfection. We expect children to perform brilliantly all the time. We expect coaches to have all the right words to bring the best out in the players and we doubly expect this perfection from the officials. This addiction to perfect is ruining the game for athletes, coaches, parents and those with a whistle. We need to change the way we support everyone, but it is the ref who is perhaps the least likely to receive compassion and gratitude. If local sports teams are to hold on to the character and values they hold dearly, we need to change. All those gathered on game day will need to move away from negative criticism and towards expressed gratitude for each other. Small expressions of mindset change like signing a card will set a quality example of good sportsmanship and character to our children. This activity is not going to stop every parent from having a moan at a decision they feel is unhelpful. What this offers is a little act of mindfulness to remember who the ref is. They are giving up their time, like all human beings they make mistakes, they’re not here to spoil anyone’s fun. They’re here to facilitate people’s fun. How might you encourage the officials and referees who are the unsung heroes of grassroots sport at your clubs? Without them, our children will not be able to play.

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