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Referees and Umpires Can Reduce Aggression in Youth Sports

Guidelines for combating aggression and violence.

U.S. Army RDECOM/Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Army RDECOM/Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who’s concerned about fulfillment of the developmental potential of sports is bothered by acts of aggression committed by young athletes. This includes elbows thrown in basketball, punching in soccer, bench-clearing brawls in baseball, vicious stick-work in hockey, and helmets used as weapons in football fights. Additionally, unruly behavior often spills over into the stands, as hostile parents square off against each other. It’s clear that none of this has a place in youth sports.

In their classic work Human Aggression, Baron and Richardson (1994) wrote, “Aggression is any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment." This and similar definitions emphasize several key criteria of aggression:

  • It’s a behavior. Aggression isn’t a motive, attitude, or emotion. Thus, merely wanting to hurt someone isn’t aggression; harmful thoughts and anger might play a role in aggressive behavior, but they are not defining characteristics. Aggression includes both verbal and nonverbal acts. Violence refers to extreme physical aggression.
  • It’s intentional. Accidental harm isn’t aggression. But acts that are intended to injure are, whether successful or not.
  • It involves harm or injury. Aggressive acts cause physical or psychological harm.
  • It’s directed toward a living being. For example, kicking a dog is aggression, but kicking a bench is not.
  • Victims of aggression are motivated to avoid it. Sadomasochistic and suicidal acts are thus eliminated from consideration.

The role of referees and umpires in reducing aggression

Sport officials are responsible for controlling the conduct of athletic events. This includes enforcing the rules of play, implementing fair-play policies, and mediating disputes with athletes and coaches in a sensible manner. But they can also take a proactive role in curbing aggression. Some effective procedures include the following:

1. Officials should meet with team captains and coaches prior to the start of each competitive event. This provides a direct opportunity for clarifying rules and establishing expectations regarding how the game/match will be played and what kinds of behaviors will not be tolerated. Baseball and football have used this approach for decades, but it’s often a neglected part of the protocol of other sports.

2. Dialogue between officials and athletes should be encouraged. Referees and umpires traditionally have governed their sports with an iron fist and seldom tolerate any verbal input. For example, penalties typically are given to athletes seeking clarification on a particular ruling. On the other hand, keeping lines of communication open increases awareness and understanding of the rules, and fosters greater internalization of moral/ethical values (sportsmanship) associated with fair play.

3. Officials should be consistent in their interpretation of the rules and in assessing penalties. A frequent complaint concerns failure to judge recurring rule violations in exactly the same way. Consequently, some athletes feel that the official will not penalize an opponent for committing a foul against them—so they retaliate. Additionally, in attempting to maintain the flow of the game/match, referees might tend to overlook initial violations. When this happens, they fall into the trap of having to deal with subsequent acts of retaliation and the potential escalation of aggression.

4. The use of female officials should be supported. Sport psychology research indicates that athletes perceive women as less approving of violence than men. Moreover, the trend toward using female officials contributes to breaking down gender-role stereotypes. Indeed, hockey enthusiasts are often surprised to find that many women referees are capable of skating as fast as male officials.

5. Officials should maintain an appropriately high level of physical fitness. Those who struggle to keep pace with speedy young athletes are more likely to be out of position and unable to make proper calls on plays at distant parts of the field/court/rink. When this happens, the risk of missing initial illegal behaviors (e.g., “cheap shots”) increases, which paves the way for more violence.

A final point of emphasis is warranted: Officials are clearly in charge of the manner in which sports are conducted. However, first and foremost, the obligation for teaching sportsmanlike behavior rests squarely on coaches, with the support of knowledgeable parents (see Smoll & Smith, 2002).


Baron, R.A., & Richardson, D.R. (1994). Human aggression. New York: Plenum Press.

Smoll, F.L., & Smith, R.E. (Producers). (2002). Mastery Approach to Coaching [Video].

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