Canada

Quebec soccer clubs use role-playing to prepare referees for abusive encounters

As the head referee for CS Saint Laurent, Christopher Quinn spends a lot of time worrying about the safety of his workforce.

“The last thing that I want is someone quitting and even more so if it’s based on their security. It pains me when it happens,” Quinn told CBC pitchside at a recent training course for new referees at the Saint-Laurent Sports Complex last month.

Safety has always been a concern for Quinn, but perhaps it’s never been as much in focus as it is now.

With each viral video showing parents, fans, players or coaches verbally or physically abusing referees online, the focus on these interactions grows. Some soccer clubs have resorted to equipping refs with body cameras.

To help deal with that abuse, clubs like CS Saint-Laurent now include role-playing scenarios in their training.

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Soccer Lac St-Louis and CS Saint-Laurent have added role-playing scenarios that include how to deal with abusive behaviour from spectators, coaches and parents.

“The first thing we tell them is you want to avoid it,” Quinn said. “If you make a mistake on the field, you stick to it. The worst thing you want to do is let it linger. Because it just grows, grows, grows until some point or some call or whatever and the crowd or the coaches lose it. And that’s what we simulate.”

The club does not want a repeat of what happened at a game in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., in 2022.

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In that case, cellphone video captured an adult coming down from the grandstands and punching a linesman.

In addition to the new role-playing training for referees, CS Saint-Laurent now offers sensitivity training for parents and coaches.

“It really went a long way. Last year our discipline issues were very minimal,” said CS Saint-Laurent sporting director Rocco Placentino.

But for Quinn, even one incident is too many.

“These are people, these are kids. It could be your kid,” Quinn said. “You need to have referees to have a club. There is no way around this.”

Is it worse — or just on video?

Many in the minor soccer community don’t believe that the situation is much worse for referees now than it was 20 years ago. It’s just that the perception has changed because so many of these incidents are now caught on video.

“For me it’s an ongoing factor. It’s been here since the beginning,” Placentino said.

Soccer Lac St-Louis says data gathered by referees and its members shows that the number of situations involving physical violence or extreme verbal abuse has remained relatively stable over the last few years.

A young man holds a flag in his right hand.
Finley Rodrigue is one of the trainees this season with CS Saint-Laurent. (Douglas Gelevan/CBC)

In its more than 2,000-game season, 17 incidents were reported in 2022 and 21 in 2023. So far in 2024, they’ve recorded 13.

But Quinn says he’s seen expectations for referees shift.

“Refereeing is considered a lot more professional than it used to be when I first started,” he said. “Initially it was just that any kid could get a summer job here and you’d just have to be a present body on the field.”

Soccer Lac St-Louis added abusive situation role-playing to its referee training last year. The club’s director, Robert D’Alesio, believes it’s helping.

Struggle to recruit and retain

All referee training in Quebec starts at the club level. Several people who work in Quebec minor soccer told CBC that some clubs are struggling to recruit and retain employees.

To address the situation, the Minor Soccer Association of Windsor, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, recently announced that it would equip its referees with body cameras starting this season.

While Placentino supports Windsor’s decision, he says body cameras are too expensive and not practical for larger clubs like his.

Quinn, meanwhile, says he hasn’t had trouble finding fresh refereeing recruits. But he adds that CS Saint-Laurent is an exception.

At the training CBC was invited to, there were about 20 trainees on the pitch. It was their first day outside of a classroom and the teacher from Soccer Quebec was already emphasizing the importance of embracing the authoritative nature of the job.

The whistle must be blown with conviction. The hand signals must be clear and certain. On the field, the referee must be the boss.

Finley Rodrigue, 14, says he’s ready for the challenge.

“I love soccer and also someone has to do it,” Rodrigue said. “So if I have the chance to be a referee and to let other people play soccer and do what they love, then I’m all for it.”

A girl smiles and holds a flag.
Alessandra Sardelli knows being a soccer referee isn’t easy, but she’s learning the craft because of her love of the game. (Douglas Gelevan/CBC)

Alessandra Sardelli, 13, says she’s aware that she could be a target for abuse.

“It’s not OK to do that. It’s a hard job,” she said. But soccer means too much to her to not get involved.

“I’d like to see [the game] from a different point of view. I want to understand refs and I want to respect them.”

The role-playing is something soccer associations hope will help their rookie referees, who are primarily young people that say they’re not in it for the money — but for the love of the game.

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