Youth Football Online

The Promotion & Instruction of Youth Football
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Youth Football Online

The Promotion & Instruction of Youth Football
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Youth Football Online

Talking to Youth Football  Referees 


Communication is critical to the success of any endeavor. When talking to youth football referees there is no difference. In our day jobs, we wouldn’t dream of telling someone in a position to make our lives miserable how much they sucked. Somehow, when we get on field we seem to forget this.

I have been guilty of this myself, which is a real no-no for Referees. Sometimes, when you know something is just completely wrong, it is hard to help yourself. I know this may come as a shock, but youth football Referees make mistakes. Lots of them. The ones you notice are about 1/10 of the ones their supervisors and evaluate notice.

Examples of mistakes Referees make but you’ll only notice if they really blow it are:

  • Spotting the ball
  • Positioning
  • Signalling incorrectly
  • Improper Signals

What makes this worse is that Division I College and Pro Football are completely different games than football at the lower levels. In D1 and pro they worry more about the color and length of players socks than a violation of helping the runner or illegal helmet contact (although this is finally beginning to change).

This makes it a challenge on Saturday afternoon when a player can be ejected for taunting for doing what his hero does on Sunday afternoon. What makes it even worse for officials is that some Pop Warner leagues might require two taunting penalties before ejection when the High School rule interpreter will want that player ejected for the initial incident, as in NC.

Frankly, this stuff is confusing.

Trying to keep two or 3 different sets of rules together makes you a little nuts. Especially, when you might be a seasoned High School official, who is starting to get D-3 Varsity assignments as a Back Judge, but you’re the Referee in a Pop Warner game with 3 officials who have never worked a High School JV game and 2 coaches in their first year above flag. Does anyone see trouble brewing?

Which brings me back to communication. I used to love working the Durham Eagles games. Their on-site guy met with the officials (especially if he had never seen you before) and told you how things worked at his field. He also went over issues from the previous week or if either team had a history with each other. He also spoke to the coaches.  This helped prevent issues that might come up due to misunderstanding the rules for that level.

So my advice to coaches and referees is very simple:

  • Talk to each other
  • Have a good pregame meeting, even if it takes a few minutes, with both coaches there.
  • Know who the site admin is.
  • When mistakes are made acknowledge them and move on.

Finally, remember, you are the adults. You set the tone. If the players see that mutual respect – even when you disagree – they will model that on the football field and, most importantly, off.

Talking to Youth Football Referees 

You call the perfect play. It is brought back for a block in the back that you know – know without a doubt – that it was from in front and then the player turned to attempt a tackle. Flag down. The odds of the flag being picked up in this case are about 1 in 100.

So you feel stuck. You can complain and jump up and down. If the official thinks he blew it, he may let you do that for a play or two or you may get 15 more yard for Unsportsmanlike. You can say nothing, but that does not show your players you are supporting them. So you have to say something.

You want the official to be more observant. He may have even made a mistake. It could be a teaching opportunity.


Notice how all-caps got your blood pressure up. Unless, you are coaching an amazingly talented Pro team, this is a must. Even if the Referees awarded a catch on a ball that bounced off your head to the opposing team, you have to stay calm.

I have officiated many games where the coach that kept his cool when he could and probably should have gone ballistic, because he knew his team would get distracted. Once a team takes its focus off the field bad things happen.

If Referees are letting the game get out of hand, you have to speak up. But… remember that the reason teams play “chippy” is that they can get you off your game. So complain, but keep your players focused. If you have to have a serious discussion, have your Assistants keep the players away.

Finally, if a coach talks to your opposition’s coach – even if it is to ask about the length of halftime or something mundane – find out what he said from your sideline official. A good Referee will always talk to both benches. You are well within your rights to hear exactly what was told the other coach.

Quick Tips for Talking to Referees 

  • Respect is critical – Address the youth football referees on your sideline with respect. Expect the same. If the sideline official does not listen to your reasonable complaint, you may want to speak to the Referee at a convenient time.
  • Ask questions. The good coaches ask questions for two reasons – to understand why the call was made and to figure out if the covering referee made a bad call.
  • Listen – youth football referees may not understand the rule. For example, Horse Collar is a tough one that I blew in a scrimmage. We got together with each other and the coaches and went over the definition in detail. There was nothing on the line, but 4 games later, that discussion helped me make the right call.

youth football referees will make mistakes. By communicating efficiently and effectively, you can ensure that you and your team can stay focused on winning the game even if you lose the argument.


The most frustrating penalty for coaches seems to be Illegal Formation. A little secret: Most Referees hate calling them too. So let’s talk about why they are called:

  • Too many men in the backfield.
  • Ineligible Receiver.
  • A guy in No Man’s Land.

The definition is pretty simple. There are some other things that come up, like numbering infractions, but they usually don’t apply in Youth Football. However, to be safe, give your backfield players numbers between 1 and 49 and 80 and 99. Yes, your QB can be 99 if wants to be.

Pop Quiz: Can number 77 run the ball?

Answer: Yes, he can. However, he will always be ineligible for a forward pass by rule if you are using High School Federation rules.

Too Many men in the backfield

 This is the one most youth football referees really try to avoid at lower levels.  Most will do everything we can to get your end to be on the line of scrimmage, if we count 5 in the backfield. We may not even call it on a running play to the opposite side or a punt. The rule is in place to ensure that teams don’t gain an unfair advantage by hiding receivers.

We will call it if we’ve do not feel the players or coaches are listening and we have to get their attention. Personally, I try to call it at the least critical time, so it doesn’t affect the game. Usually, I will talk to my partner first and see if we can get the ends to listen. Did, I mention that I hate calling this below Varsity.

Ineligible Receiver

The other problem we have is a covered Tight End. Usually the kid lines up on the wrong side, so you have a tackle at the end of the line and two ends on the other side. This is a train wreck on a passing play, but a no call on a run. You can have 10 guys on the line if you want. And yes, if the Center has an eligible number, he can be on the end and go out for a pass.

One key thing to remember, there are no rules requiring people to stay on the line on punts in Youth Football (unless your association does that). Your guys are released at the snap. However, if you plan to run a fake punt pass, then having the lineman suddenly not release is going to have the Coach yelling “Fake” pretty quickly.

No Man’s Land

The biggest problem is a guy in No Man’s Land. All Lineman must break the Center’s Waist with some part of their body. In a 3 point stance, this is fairly obvious. In a two-point stance, have your guys lean forward in a breakdown position and they should be close enough.

Note: Tell your Center to make sure his head is not completely over the ball. He can be right up to the tip, but not onto the Defensive side. Also, if it is not a playoff game, do not ask me to call it. I am not. These are kids, not pros. If it is a playoff game, your center should know better.


  1. Train your ends to tell the official “I am a back” or “I am an end” – The official should say “I am the Line” as the receiver walks up. If he knows your receiver is supposed to be an end and a snap is imminent, you will likely get the benefit of the doubt within a few feet.
  2. Train your ends to look at the official. If the official is behind him, he is offside. This should not happen, but it will at least 5 times a game.
  3. Make sure your slot back is in the backfield. Tell him to look at the Tackle. He should have his head, when he leans forward be behind the tackles backside.

At the Varsity level, Wide Receivers will communicate with the Wing official on very down. If you are running two wide outs, have your back coach watching the officials. If the arm is pointing toward the backfield – he thinks your end is a back: Pointing Forward – he thinks he’s an end.

You might notice a theme here: Communication with the official by the coach and the receiver can help prevent being flagged for lining up incorrectly. Most of us don’t want to call this type of foul, but we will if we cannot get your players to line up correctly any other way.

I hope this was helpful. Many football coaches do not know how to talk to youth football referees.

Read more about youth football referees.


(Written by Youth Football Online Referee Steve Wells)