Whistles for fouls ring out across the kitchen, and a wooden spoon replaces a flag for an assistant referee ready to signal for an offsides call. Of course, there’s no soccer being played, but that was part of the scene as soccer referees across Colorado went from on-field to virtual training during the coronavirus pandemic.
While soccer fields across the state are empty and games are on hold because of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, referees within the Colorado Soccer Association can still undergo training and fine-tune their skills through virtual sessions offered twice a week by Denise Duran, the State Director of Instruction for the Colorado Soccer Referee Program.
“Right now, our referees are not getting the on-field training and hands-on experience job training,” Duran said. “During this COVID crisis we are all in, we are stuck at home. But our state association and U.S. Soccer have approved states to do some type of virtual training to take the place of field training in the midst of the crisis.
“We are working to keep people engaged and interested in becoming a referee. When we do get back on the field, we hope to have the numbers to cover games.”
Referee shortages have become a nationwide problem. Referee associations don’t want to lose prospective new officials because they cannot do required training. Typically, new referees must complete six hours of on-field training after they complete a five-hour online training course through U.S. Soccer before they can begin to referee games.
Instead of working live games with a mentor official, new referees are now working together online while watching film and engaging in conversation regarding the game and specific scenarios. A typical online training is now between three and four hours.
“Whether we are on stay-at-home orders during this crisis or it’s soccer as normal, we never have enough refs,” Duran said. “Soccer refs, anyone in youth sports officiating, we get a bad rap. People see it as a negative, and we are constantly trying to shift that and take the negative vibe away from it. Right now, we are making it as simple as possible for someone to register and do the steps to complete the online course and virtual training.”
Durango’s Peter Kemery received his referee kit this spring and was eager to officiate Durango Youth Soccer Association games and looked to move up to cover high school games. Instead, he completed the online training last Saturday from his dining room.
“Of course, it was really disappointing not to get on the field and learn in person, but this is our current normal,” Kemery said. “So, when the opportunity arose to finish my certification, I had nothing but excitement. We watched a lot of game footage and jumped into a lot of really valuable discussion about positioning and player management.
“The best part was that we had five high-level instructors who all offered incredible incite. That is certainly a perk unique to virtual meetings.”
Duran said crafting the virtual training was a bit of a challenge. Going from the field to the computer was not a simple task. But she received good feedback from the first session and will continue to offer the virtual course at least through the end of May. A full schedule is available at www.coloradosoccer.org.
Once teams can get back on the field, referees will be paired with mentors to help make the transition from the virtual world to the field.
As an added bonus, any new referee who registers will get their 2021 registration fee covered.
“Any new ref into the program right now, you can take your registration fee through 2021,” Duran said. “We wanted to offer a perk there and something to look forward to since we don’t know when we will be able to get back onto the field this year.”
Duran has enjoyed the online experience because it allows her to connect with officials from all over the state at the same time, something she is unable to do on a regular weekend attending various games and tournaments. During the first training, Kemery tuned in from Durango while others were represented from Fort Collins and all across the Front Range.
There also was a good mix of older officials along with some as young as 13 who have begun their path to becoming a referee.
“This is the bottom step of the ladder on the path to reach the FIFA level if someone wanted to dedicate themselves to it,” Duran said. “You can start as a grassroots ref on your local level and decide how far you want to take becoming an official. It can be something you do at your backyard field every Saturday, or you can move all the way up to the World Cup. But this is where you start.”
For Kemery, that path may have started in his kitchen, but he’s eager and ready to get on the field and start working his way toward bigger matches, whenever they start again.
“It was a ton of fun to do the training,” he said. “We all collectively nerded out over the intricacies of the beautiful game while waving around a wooden spoon in the kitchen to practice flag signals.”