Lessons from My Not-So-Secret Life as a Soccer Referee

metacool my feet in refereeing soccer shoes

This past fall, I became a volunteer American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) referee. My experience as a neophyte referee was one of the most meaningful things I did last year. I didn’t expect AYSO soccer to help me grow in my professional life, but with an open heart and mind, insights can come from anywhere.

Founded in 1964, AYSO’s mission is to provide world-class youth soccer programs that enrich children’s lives. On any given Saturday in the U.S., you’ll see teams of boys and girls chasing the ball in AYSO soccer games, with refs like me there to ensure that everyone has an experience that’s safe, fair, and most of all, fun.

After several evenings of training, I qualified to referee matches for kids under age 8. Run without goalies, their games feature stunning breakaways and enough breathtaking shots on goal to make Arsène Wenger green with envy. This is real soccer. I’m fairly fit, but in our matches I had to run hard to keep up with these future Carli Lloyds. Seriously though: 7-year-olds can sprint really fast!

My professional life revolves around bringing new stuff into the world, and helping others do the same. As such, I’m always on the lookout for better models for leadership in the pursuit of creative outcomes. I used to think of the role of orchestra conductor as great metaphor for creative leadership, but in my experience it’s too hierarchical an approach to work in most contexts. Recently I’ve written that leaders should think of themselves as gardeners. But who in the workplace wants to think of themselves as an innocent head of broccoli on the receiving end of fertilizer — or even a spade?

I now believe that refereeing soccer — in the AYSO sense of the role — is a fascinating model for leadership in the workplace. That’s because of the PIE framework that’s a central part of the league’s referee and coach training. What PIE says is that any coach or referee interacting with players must always be:

  • Positive
  • Instructional
  • Encouraging

In a world where the dominant mindset of referees (and bosses, and sometimes even coaches) is to be an enforcer rather than a teacher, this is easier said than done.

Here’s an experience I had trying to live the PIE philosophy on the field one bright Saturday morning in California. I had a talented player who was full of energy and having a good game, pouring huge amounts of energy into her play. However, as the match flowed on, I noticed that when in close quarters with other players (from both teams), she was consistently a little over-enthusiastic with the sharp parts of her elbows. How to enforce the rules while being as positive, instructional, and encouraging as possible? I gave my whistle a pip, gathered both squads around, and calmly asked them to all position their arms like chicken wings. And then I asked everyone to give them a few good flaps. We then observed as a group that when our arms were out like this, touching other soccer players with our elbows could hurt someone, and that didn’t seem like a fun way to play. With nodding of heads, some giggles and some smiles, we recommenced our soccer frenzy with an exciting drop-ball.

I guarantee you that this intervention was more effective, more memorable, and positive for everyone — players, parents, coaches, me —  than the standard approach we see in sports or at work: a penalty whistle meant to shame a specific individual, reprimanding them in the present to limit their behavior in the future. Now, would a chicken-wing circle be appropriate when Martin Skrtel stomps an opponent like a flamenco dancer who has slurped one too many espressos? No, but I believe that individuals raise or lower their behaviors and beliefs to the expectations of the environment they work or play in. A consistently positive, optimistic, and encouraging culture can teach people that there’s a better way to be in the world.

Built into the core of a culture, a guiding philosophy like PIE creates the ideal circumstances for an up and coming leader to practice a form of leadership that helps other people grow to become the person they want to be. When it comes to leading people in creative endeavors, you could do a lot worse than to think and act like a PIE-centered referee. Keeping players engaged in a flowing game, stopping play only when absolutely essential, and using those moments as a teachable moment where the group almost leads itself — it’s a wonderful metaphor for creative leadership. As Stanford d.school founder David Kelley once said, “I can give you the confidence that you are a leader by giving some experiences where it comes out better than you thought and you were the leader.” A PIE approach — positive, instructional, and encouraging — helps you lead in that way.

All of this is why I’m proud to make being an AYSO referee part of my life outside of work, and it’s why I hope to keep on carrying a whistle (but not blowing it much) for years to come.