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youth sports

Thirteen year old David Cranston referees during a soccer game of 6 year olds at the Iroquois Soccer Complex in Whitby, OntarioDeborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes the dirty hits were hard to spot. But Geoff Hooper, a 16-year-old hockey referee from Oshawa, Ont., always had a clear view of the ugliness beyond the boards.

Coaches cursed at him. Parents mocked his calls. He never felt physically threatened, but the verbal arrows stung. Often, as he watched grown men scream like children, Mr. Hooper felt embarrassed for them.

Eventually, Mr. Hooper decided the $25 a game he made refereeing 12-year-olds wasn't worth the trouble. So, like approximately half of all new Canadian referees and umpires do every year, he quit.

"Sometimes it's just not worth it to get belittled," says Mr. Hooper, now 20 and a student at the University of Waterloo.

Quitting has become rampant among young sports officials as parents and coaches grow increasingly abusive at children's games, league officials across the country say. Drop-out rates as high as 60 per cent are creating a vicious circle: A lack of experienced officials means kids as young as 9 are refereeing other children. And as those junior referees and umpires are intimidated into dropping out, fewer are rising through the ranks to become confident and competent at the job.

"Nationally, we train just enough to keep our heads above water and make up for the people who are leaving each year," says Joe Guest, director of referees for the Canadian Soccer Association.

Disturbed by the abuse and worried about shortages, a number of youth sports leagues are attempting to reverse the trend with programs designed to control foul-mouthed adults and support fledgling officials.

This season, the Calgary Minor Soccer Association has instituted "field marshals" at games to protect referees as young as 12 from adult spectators who officials say are so foul-mouthed and aggressive that two-thirds of new referees quit every year.

Softball Canada recently launched Respect My Game, a program that includes a short statement that umpires read before every game asking for respect from fans. And, starting this year, the Canadian Soccer Association has ruled that all referees at high-level games must be at least 14 years old, because it realized kids as young as 11 were officiating such events - and lacked the confidence to deal with conflicts on the field. "It gives them a bit of protection," Mr. Guest says.

Other leagues have introduced more aggressive measures, including "silent stands" policies, which forbid spectators to shout and cheer. In Bethesda, Md., officials of a soccer league banished all the parents of one team from the sidelines for two games. The parents had to watch - some with binoculars - from at least 90 metres away.

Officials report that most referees drop out by the time they're 16, suggesting that growing time commitments from school and friends may make officiating - and the extra training required - less appealing. But the main reason, many say, is in the stands. "I've had referees on the field crying because of what some of the parents have said to them," says Gordon Arrowsmith, head of referees at the Whitby Iroquois Soccer Club, east of Toronto. "They go berserk."

For a former Toronto police officer who has spent decades refereeing soccer, watching adults harass his youngest recruits is beyond frustrating. Part of his job is teaching children how to ignore the pressure from angry adults - at least long enough to gain the confidence and skills needed to become good referees.

"How do you learn? You make mistakes. But some of the parents are very unforgiving."

Young refs say a thick skin is mandatory, especially when the bully is at least three times your age. David Cranston, 13, has had fun during his first three games as an official in Whitby, although he's heard parents mutter about his calls.

"It just doesn't bother me," he says, although he recognizes the situation is bound to get worse. Right now he's refereeing six-year-old girls.

Justin Lyon, an 18-year-old hockey referee from Orangeville, Ont., has been called countless names - even at games played by 10-year-olds. "It gets hard sometimes," he acknowledges. "Now that I'm older I just ignore it all."

Others experts say more support needs to come directly from leagues - and experienced officials. For five years, George Smith has run a mentorship program at British Columbia's Richmond City Baseball Association, where he is chief umpire. While he doesn't get a lot of financial support from the league, he uses the only clout he has: scheduling. If the older umpires refuse to mentor younger ones, he doesn't book them for games.

"Unless you get that type of mentorship happening," he says, "kids are left to flounder on their own."

The mentoring program worked for Mike Yamaguchi. He umpired his first game four years ago at age 9. He was nervous, but it helped to have an older, more experienced umpire on the field to lean on during tough calls. He also has his dad in the stands.

"You really want to jump in there, but you also understand that he has to stand up for himself, too," Bruce Yamaguchi says.

Now a veteran at 13, Mike is a mentor himself. He still makes mistakes. And coaches do get in his face - although one did apologize the next day.

The biggest deciding factor in whether a kid will continue, Mike says, is their confidence - not their age.

"You have to have control of yourself first before you can control other people. You don't want to have a bad self-image."