As a group, referees might be the least popular people in all of soccer. Let’s face it, no matter what call they make – or don’t make – someone is almost certain to disagree. Sometimes it’s thousands of someones, and sometimes they can be vehement about their disagreement.
Sandra Serafini is the Women’s Referee Manager for PRO, the Professional Referee’s Association. I met Sandra at an Atlanta Silverbacks game this season and she was nice enough to talk with me about her well-credentialed perspectives on soccer refereeing. It’s fascinating stuff, and is really enlightening as to what it takes to effectively officiate a match.
A former player, Sandra’s refereed more games than you’ve probably watched, including FIFA international games. At PRO, she manages FIFA women officials, and the roster of officials for the National Women’s Soccer League.
Oh, one more thing…
Dr. Serafini is a neuroscientist, and recently finished a 15-year career as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the Duke University School of Medicine.
Credentials? Yeah, Sandra’s got credentials.
Sandra talked with 10Soccer about her referee experiences, her role at PRO, and the increasing opportunities for women as professional soccer referees.
I had to start by asking Dr. Serafini about her work at Duke, one of the finest medical schools in the world. She told me her work was in clinical neuroscience, with epilepsy patients and brain tumor patients, both adults and children.
“I was part of the clinical team that looked at surgical candidates,” Sandra told me, “and I would design the paradigms to test out their language function, as well as motor and sensory function, and then potentially some visual/spatial abilities. But my specialty was in language processing, so I designed the paradigms and administered them to our patients to help figure out exactly where their language, speech, and motor control was coming from.”
It seemed to me that would put refereeing in perspective for her.
“People ask me that quite a bit,” Sandra answered. “How do you care about going on the field and calling a throw-in or a foul? I think it’s just what you bring to any career. In soccer nowadays, almost no matter what level you go to, somebody’s job is on the line, and every decision can impact the result. You bring a lot of the same skill sets to both in the sense that you’re doing a lot of quick decision making, using your training, and doing it under pressure. If you have passion about what you’re doing, you just don’t look at it as, ‘Hey, I was involved in taking out a brain tumor this morning, so I don’t care what direction this throw-in’s going.’ You just do the best you can with whatever you’re doing at the time.”
“But it does put it into perspective. I think where the perspective hits you the most is with some of the emotion of the benches. Sometimes you think, ‘That’s a lot of complaining we’ve got going on here. My 13-year-old brain tumor patient didn’t complain as much this morning.’ But again, I understand their jobs are based on results and every decision has an impact on that, so you just focus on the bigger picture of bench decorum and take it from there.”
Sandra began officiating when she was 12 years old. She worked her way up through the ranks in soccer, and has officiated more than 2,000 games. She started with amateur ball and youth games. But it was when she was in graduate school that she really started to pile up the minutes.
“I was probably refereeing about 15 to 20 games a week,” Serafini told me. “We would do what we call a ‘one man system’. Just one referee, and we would do two or three games in a row. And I would do that four or five nights a week, for several years through graduate school. It was great experience, but I shudder to think what that looked like in terms of really covering the field properly.”
Working men’s, women’s, and co-ed adult games, Sandra said this was where she really learned how to manage players. “You’re by yourself out there. There’s no one to assist you or bail you out, so you have to take control of all the details.”
“I think it did a lot of things,” she explained. “I think it helped me with player management, and it helped me get perspective on the field, to keep open views, and scan the field, and keep an eye out for any trouble. I was the only one that was going to have to handle it, so it was in my best interest to keep an eye on as much as possible.”
I asked Sandra if there was a particular type of game that she found most challenging to referee.
“The ones that I remember getting the most out of, and really enjoying the most, were Sunday morning leagues of the amateur men’s ball. I was living in Seattle at the time, so there were all kinds of different ethnicities. One week would be two Hispanic teams, another week it might be a Hispanic team against the Balkan team, England against Scotland, African teams coming out – and you just really had to figure out the nuances very quickly.”
“I think most female officials would attest to it, when you first get out there, and you’re new, they’re going to challenge you a little bit more. They give you different challenges and they’re not terribly creative with what they’re saying to you – so you have to understand it’s not personal, and just have a good sense of humor to balance out the times you have to be firm. But what I found, regardless of the teams, was once you show you know the Laws, that you can keep up with the speed of play, that you can handle the players and manage them when you need to, and especially bring a sense of humor, then they end up becoming some of your biggest advocates. Some of the players and coaches in those leagues were some of my biggest supporters by the end of it, and that meant the world to me. So it was worth it.”
We also talked about how the skill level of the players impacts the ease or difficulty of refereeing a game.
“In terms of the decision making itself, it’s definitely easier when the players have higher skill levels,” Sandra said, “because the passes get connected, the touches are clean, so when a foul happens it’s a little more obvious. With players who are less skilled, or less technically savvy, if the passes aren’t connecting, that can become a 50/50 ball, which usually leads to a challenge, which would lead to a [refereeing] decision.”
“The tradeoff to that is with really skilled players, the speed of play is much faster. The game just moves so much more quickly, and so the decisions you have can be really far away from you within a touch or two if you’re not reading the game. And if you get it wrong at the higher level, it can turn very quickly. Those are two of the main differences.”
Sandra’s retired from active refereeing now. “You bet I am,” she told me emphatically. She came off the FIFA referee roster in 2009 because of a hip injury. She then transitioned into the administrative work and training and development for U.S. Soccer and then to PRO.
As the Women’s Referee Manager for PRO, Serafini manages the female FIFA officials. She’s responsible for scouting and developing people for that panel, and liaises with U.S. Soccer on several fronts, especially to increase the pool of women officials.
“Rick Eddy [Director of Referee Development for U.S. Soccer], and I collaborate quite a bit and it’s been great. And over the last four years, I spent a lot of time setting up networks around the country with different administrators and mentors to get the message out that we want women developed to go to the highest levels.”
“For example, I hooked up with Sarah Kate Noftsinger[commissioner of the Elite Clubs National League], and either myself or someone in my staff would go out and look at all the referees – male and females – but we’re particularly interested in increasing the pool and the quality of women officiating.”
Sandra’s working with different state associations to identify women who are demonstrating good potential and may be ready for the next level. Potential candidates need to have experience, good fitness, and demonstrate an interest in furthering their career. Refs that meet those criteria are who Serafini and someone in her staff want to go see perform.
When they do evaluate a ref, Sandra shares the information with Rick Eddy and U.S. Soccer, so that when the state association or the official applies for an event like the Development Academy showcases at U.S. Soccer, there’s already some information on the referee candidate.
“It really connects a lot of dots together, which we have to do with our geography,” Sandra explained. “It gives folks in the state and at the local level a point person. I’m looking for women officials, not just for NWSL, but for all soccer. They know we are looking for women to come up through the ranks and get to the highest level they possibly can. And that means boys’ and girls’ games, men’s and women’s games – MLS is open to it as well.”
“So that’s my job as referee manager, is to keep that network going, and facilitate the opportunities for them so they’re getting equitable opportunities, not only in training and the coaching side of it, but also in the actual games. We’ve had some success with that – we still have a ways to go with it, but it’s gotten a lot better. And it’s just nice to have the support from U.S. Soccer and PRO. Because when Peter Walton [PRO General Manager] comes up and says, ‘Hey, we want women officials.’ the setting of that example means a lot.”
Sandra sees that more refereeing opportunities are available to women now.
“It’s getting there. I can say that I’m happy with the progress that we’ve made. I can’t say I’m satisfied. But, I’m happy with the progress we’ve made, especially over the last five years or so. We set the example at the top, and people get their cues from that. It’s about looking for the best officials. Regardless of who that is, male or female, they want the best officials, so that means everyone’s got to have the same chance.”
“But we still have areas of the country with assigners who aren’t comfortable with that. And they carry a lot of sway in the assignments and the opportunities that women officials will have. If they’re not comfortable with it, especially putting female referees in the boys’ and men’s games, it really stunts the development of the officials. If we were talking about race or ethnicity, everybody would be aghast at the idea that people don’t get equal opportunities – but as far as gender goes, there’s still some hesitancy there.”
“At this point it’s something that we deal with. I really prefer to spend my energy on what opportunities we can create so that it’s equitable. Rick Eddy has been fantastic with supporting that, setting the example and expectation that this is how we operate.”
Sandra’s other primary responsibility at PRO is selecting the roster of officials (both men and women) for the National Women’s Soccer League, which is the Division 1 professional women’s league in the U.S. Sandra assigns the officials, and assigns the referee assessors. She and her staff perform reviews of incidents that come up in the games. They’re taking a very high-tech approach to this, developing a database that contains analysis and development notes on critical match incidents and corresponding video.