Abuse or 'Banter'​ - What is it That Young Referees Are Facing?

Abuse or ‘Banter’​ – What is it That Young Referees Are Facing?

We often hear from individuals or parents/carers regarding their concerns about bullying of young referees. It’s true that bullying can happen anywhere at any time and that it does happen to young officials operating at all levels within the game. 

Key Points: 

  • It is important to trust your instincts as to whether it is bullying or something that is just a joke between club officials/players/spectators and referees. If it upsets them or becomes persistent then this could be bullying.
  • Encourage your child or young person to confide in you about what is happening and how they feel.
  • Plan to meet with your Referee Development Officer/Manager and let them know you understand that banter can be high-spirited in football but it is becoming persistent, damaging confidence and increasing anxiety. This is bullying

Often young officials do not feel able to express how they feel if they are being bullied in case they get told that they are weak or they are worried they may lose out on appointments. Those experiencing bullying at the hands of club officials and players may fear reprisals or the bullying getting worse the next time they’re handed a fixture involving that team.

Bullying of Referees

If you’re child is a young official and you’re feeling upset at the way they are being treated on the field by youth players/club officials or adults involved in the game then there are things you can do about that. If they’re made fun of on the pitch or in the dressing room, or have been made to feel upset in order to put them off their game so that they don’t want to make key decisions which don’t go in the favour of one side, that could be bullying. It is important to trust your instincts as to whether it is bullying or something that is just a joke between the playing and officiating teams. If it upsets them or it is become persistent then this could be bullying. 

There are a number of types of bullying that can occur in football. You may find name calling and verbal bullying where a referee is being given cruel nicknames, taunted, threats and intimidation. An official may be subject to physical bullying which could be hitting, slapping, tripping and anything else that causes physical harm. We also hear about social bullying in sports where referees will gossip about others, leave someone out or embarrass colleagues in front of others. 

What Action You Can Take? 

  • Encourage your child to confide in you about what is happening and how they feel.
  • Contact the Referee Development Officer/Manager and explain the situation.
  • Chronicle what happens including dates, times and witnesses of the incident in your notebook.
  • Ask colleagues within your team to support your version of events if this is possible. Sometimes others may not want to get involved as they might be worried they will get bullied.

If the problem isn’t resolved, ask the leader of your local Football Association for a copy of the complaints or bullying policy.  

Advice For Parents 

It can be really difficult for a parent to tackle bullying of their son or daughter if they are concerned that they are going through something like this. Your first instinct may be to protect your child or get involved but that may not help your child in the long term. Signs to look out for: 

  • Has your child suddenly lost interest in refereeing?
  • Has your child refused to accept appointments or made excuses not to officiate?
  • Do they say they are feeling unwell or look anxious about going?
  • Have you noticed a change in their behaviour such as more snappy then usual or perhaps feeling low?
  • Do they get agitated before going to fixtures?

If your child has confided in you, it is important to listen to what they say and allow them to have a say in the action. They may want to take their time as it may be a sensitive situation, so as important as it is to go at their pace, it is essential to also encourage them to get this sorted sooner rather than later, before it escalates. Understand and respect their concerns and fears which are very real to them and need sensitivity. They may be worried they will get further bullied, lose appointments or perhaps be handed fixtures of a lower standard. 

Agree a way forward with your child, and plan to meet with the Referee Development Officer/Manager as a united front. Speak to the RDO/M, let them know you understand that banter can be high-spirited in football, but now it is becoming persistent, it is damaging confidence and increasing anxiety and this is bullying. Be assertive with the RDO/M if you need to be as we have heard from parents that officiating and football leaders have attempted to sweep things under the carpet in the past. Ask the RDO/M for a copy of the anti-bullying policy too. 

It is important to support your child through this process too. Give your child a listening ear, space to talk and reassurance.

Bullying From Spectators

There have been many reports and accounts of bullying amongst parents and supporters who are watching from the touchline. This has resulted in, in extreme cases, parents or supporters being banned from watching their children participating in games. Some of the bullying reported has been parents abusing other people’s children when they are refereeing the games, making threats and even resorting to physical violence. There have also been reports that the bullying has escalated on social media. This should not be tolerated by officials, clubs or club officials in any shape or form. If you have experienced this, speak to the RDO/M and your FA and ask for them to intervene and take necessary action. 

Advice For Clubs & Coaches 

We understand how there can be lots of high spirited behaviour and banter within football teams. Quite often we appreciate this is encouraged to help a team bond and allow team members to get to know each other. However, there is a fine line between bullying and banter. If the banter targets one person, the referee and becomes persistent, this then becomes bullying. If it upsets the individual and has potential to damage their passion for football, self-esteem, confidence or ability to take part then this becomes bullying. It is said to get the most out of individuals it is important to encourage praise, support and unity rather than negative behaviour. 

Has your club got an anti-bullying policy? If yes, it is important to review it regularly and ensure it is up to date. If you haven’t, then it is important to write one that works for your club, the players, referees and spectators. Once you have an anti-bullying policy, everyone involved in the club needs to be aware of it and perhaps even sign a declaration they have understood it and adhere to it. This will give everyone some responsibility to act in a positive way. 

Develop a clear strategy to deal with negative and bullying behaviour with clear consequences so team members and their families understand that the sanctions. It is important that all policies are transparent and available for everyone so they know what to expect and what is expected of them. It may help to have posters in the changing rooms to show your club is against bullying of match officials in any shape or form. Also it is crucial that you remain vigilant and know what the signs to spot are when it comes to bullying behaviour within your team as it may not be always obvious. 

Leaders and coaches of the football clubs need to take a strong stance against bullying of referees and let the members of their clubs know that this is not going to be tolerated. By having clear policies and strategies in place, the culture of bullying in football can be changed for the better across the board. Club officials should work on building character and confidence as well as footballing ability this will in turn give the children a fun and competitive experience.

At The Third Team I work individually and in collaboration with different professionals where I have developed workshops associated with Resilience and Mental Toughness Development to help referees. The workshops are interactive, where referees are encouraged to open up and share their experiences to help each other.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about my workshops and how I could help you or your officials.

Best Wishes,

Nathan Sherratt Signature

Nathan Sherratt

Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team

Nathan Sherratt

Nathan Sherratt, Referee Educator, Resilience Trainer and Managing Director of The Third Team.  A Mental Toughness Practitioner based in County Durham, North East England.