“It’s all about giving back and paying it forward.”
That’s a common remark you’ll hear from most professional soccer referees. Every referee remembers where they started out and the fellow referees who helped them to get where they wanted to go as an official. That mindset is one of the underlying principles of the PSRA and is one of the reasons why so many PSRA referees can be found passing along their knowledge to referees at tournaments and events throughout the year.
Each summer, United States Youth Soccer teams compete in the National Championship Series in their quest to be crowned National Champions. Along the way, there are four Regional Championships across the country, with each event featuring the best teams those states have to offer. While there are many success stories of prominent players that have competed in these events, the same can be said about the referees involved. Each referee is selected by their state association, which provides the top teams with top referees from their region. As a referee, being invited to “Regionals” is one of the first rites of passage in their career.
In 2001, the Director of Referees for Region III, Bob Wertz, began discussing a more effective way of helping referees during the event with Ryan Cigich & David Lakin, two of the Region III State Referee Administrators. Their efforts helped create a Mentor Program in 2002 that would give some of the referees a small group setting in which to discuss their games. The idea was based on the principle that while an Assessor will grade a referee on a given day, a Mentor would coach the referee over the course of multiple days. One of the things that has remained constant is each state selects a few referees that they feel will benefit from this intensive program. In turn, those referees are expected to bring their new knowledge & experiences back to their home states in order to serve the local referee community.
“Some of our biggest support came from Mike McDaniel, the Region III Director,” said Lakin. “He saw what we were trying to do with the referees and gave us support and the room to grow. Having that support by an administrator was key.”
“The first year was hectic because the Mentors were doing double-duty as assessors”, said PSRA member Jonathan Johnson, one of the original “Mentees,” as they are called. “We were all learning on the fly, but it was great. By the end of the week, all of the referees were really impressed and knew this was something that needed to carry on. It’s wonderful that it’s been happening for so many years now. I’m glad the program is in good hands right now with Chris [Penso].”
For the referees, day one at Regionals involves seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and participating in pre-tournament meetings. For the mentors, meeting your wide-eyed mentees for the week is exciting and humbling. Ideally, each mentor will have around 4-5 mentees in order to provide enough support for each referee through the week. Among other things, the small group will discuss some goals that each referee wants to reach and determine a rough timeline in order to facilitate their small group meetings after games. Cameron Blanchard, a first-time mentor this past year, said “I was humbled to have the pleasure of sharing my knowledge & experiences with a young group of referees who are eager to learn and progress through the ranks.”
One of the responsibilities of the Mentees is to be willing to discuss the areas they need to work on – anything from man-management techniques, to positioning, or even fine-tuning their skills as an Assistant Referee. At the same time, the Mentors have a responsibility to not only help the Mentees with their known deficiencies, but to also identify other aspects that could be improved upon. A key part of the Mentor-Mentee relationship involves building trust in each other quickly and identifying ways to communicate effectively with someone who might be a stranger prior to the event. “It’s great seeing officials progress as the tournament goes on,” said Mark Kadlecik, a long-time Mentor at Regionals. “It happens every year.”
Oftentimes that newfound trust carries over and develops into a friendship long after the week is over. “I worked with a referee who had a stellar week but failed an assessment in a previous year’s final game”, said Leland Grant. “I continued to work with the referee throughout the year and was thrilled to see her selected for nationals the next year. This was very rewarding for me…I was humbled to be a small part of her accomplishment.”
This past summer marked the 15th year of the Region III Mentor Program. PSRA members Paul Scott & Adam Garner have managed the Mentor Program in recent years. This past summer, member Chris Penso took the lead role for a 2nd time.
As with past years, this year’s event featured many PSRA referees as Mentors for the week-long event. Participating as Mentors this year were Kadlecik, Danny Thornberry, Jonathan Weiner, Grant, Rubiel Vazquez, Blanchard, and Nima Saghafi. Most notably of those, Weiner, Grant, Vazquez, and Saghafi had all recently participated in the Mentor Program in reverse roles – as Mentees. This cycle is beneficial for everyone, as many who become professional referees look to give back to the next group of referees.
Thornberry, a 5-year Mentee and now a 5-year Mentor, said “a great part of this program is that we have a mix of current national referees and former national referees. The mentees are able to get a mix of referees that are at different levels in their careers. Additionally, another big part of the program is that Region III and Ryan Cigich (Referee Director) totally support our efforts and give us the resources to help the up and coming referees.” According to Weiner, “For me, the best part is being able to give back to the future of soccer referees; it’s the place where I once started from myself. It’s all about giving back and paying it forward.”
Referees have historically found it difficult to succeed without the proper network of mentors that can give you the guidance to help you grow and advance as a referee. The PSRA and its members are proud to be associated with the Region III Mentor Program and similar events across the country that help provide a sustainable structure for the next generation of referees.