Referee Spotlight: Emma Smyth
In this month’s Referee Spotlight, in association with REFSIX, we spoke to Level 7, under-18 referee, Emma Smyth.
“If parents or coaches are shouting negative things at the players, I make sure I go over and tell them that it’s unacceptable, you're here for your kids. It's not your game, it's the kids’ game, we're here for enjoyment and our love of the game.” For a 16-year-old sixth form student, Emma has a very wise, mature head on her shoulders.
She speaks openly about her refereeing experience so far and the great fulfilment it’s brought to her life. Coming from a very sporting family, it seemed inevitable she would follow in their footsteps.
“My younger sister, who is 14, plays for Crawley Wasps Under-16s and also Meads AC Under-15s. My Mum is a PE teacher and my dad is a fitness trainer, so I was very lucky that I was brought up into the game. They have always encouraged and supported me to be involved in sport from a young age.”
“I started playing football in primary school but there weren’t really many opportunities to play as a girl. I was fortunate enough that, when I was in Year 4, I was able to play for Tandridge in the Surrey Youth Games and my team came third.
“We were a player short for the whole day but that really pushed me to want to get into football and get some more friends involved too. It was such a great event especially as a younger player because we were marked on skills/teamwork not just match results, which motivated us to work on other aspects of the game to improve overall.
“When I went to secondary school, I had to join a boys team because there weren't any local girls’ teams at the time and I played with them for two years.
“In the end I thought the environment wasn't very nice or productive for me. The parents and managers were always very shouty, they weren't encouraging. So, I left that team and decided that I wanted to become a referee, just to help make the game safer and a nicer environment for everyone else.”
When Emma decided to take up refereeing, the course was a daunting prospect, but found it pleasantly surprising.
“It was actually my dad that found the course and suggested that I do it. I thought it would be a great way to build my confidence, get a new qualification and keep connected to the game. I was 14 at the time so it was a chance to earn a bit of extra cash as well. It's always a bonus when you're in secondary school!
“I completed the course at Brighton. At the start I was quite nervous as I thought it was going to be all older people and that I would be the only girl. However I was pleasantly surprised at how diverse it was, there were three other girls on the course and also other people my age. It was a very nice place to be, everyone was very welcoming and encouraging.
“They didn't look down on you or judge you, so that was nice. I think it's very good to do the course because it gives you transferable skills that help in many different aspects of life, not just in football.
“I thought the course was very good overall. It was directed towards adult football so when you go into youth football, which is very different, you have to make sure you explain the decisions clearly to the players in the right way and not just assume that they know everything.
“I thought that it really prepared me for what to expect. Nothing was a shock when I went to do my first matches.”
When Emma was thrown into her first matches, she took to the whistle very naturally.
“I was worried about being in tough situations and that I was going to want to quit straight away! When I used to play or spectate I'd see fights and that kind of thing, so I was scared at that prospect.
“My first games I ever refereed after doing the course was an under-12 match between Oxted and Raw Skills. I was quite nervous going up to the game but all the parents were really encouraging as were the players. It was a very nice atmosphere.
“The players were very respectful, I find with the matches, it's normally not the players that you have issues with, it's the managers or parents. So as long as you make sure that as soon as you see something not right happening, you go over and tell them that it’s not acceptable then the rest of the game flows really well.
“Because I was under 16 at the time, I could only do up to under-13s so I did a few boys games and then I went on to do girls games for Crawley Wasps, Crawley United, Crawley Down and Meads.
“I loved that when I went back, I could hear the kids going, 'yes, we've got that ref again.' I thought it was very good that they also had exposure to a different image of what a referee is.
“It is great knowing that they have confidence in me when I'm refereeing, they trust my decisions, they know that I'm qualified and I am there because I'm supposed to be there. I'm not there just because I've ticked a box, I am actually prepared and know what I'm doing.”
The more you talk to Emma, you find it incredible she is as young as she is. Her personality carries over to refereeing as well, achieving respect wherever she goes.
“It's just that thing of practice and experience. Now I'm actually doing it because I enjoy it and I know that I'm making it more enjoyable for the kids and they're in a safer environment.
“If parents or coaches are shouting negative things at the players, I make sure I go over and tell them that it’s unacceptable, you're here for your kids. It's not your game, it's the kids’ game, we're here for enjoyment and our love of the game.
“I've also accepted that I'm going to make mistakes, every player on the pitch is going to make mistakes as well. If you've done something wrong, you just have to accept it and move on and improve the next time, you can't get down about it.
“I was worried, as a girl and being young, that I don't look that experienced, I thought people were going to try and shout at me a lot. But I've only had one bad incident and I just said, 'I'm the one that's done the course. If you were that good at it, then you'd have the whistle!'
“I know that they're not doing it out of anger at me but out of frustration because their team's maybe not winning or playing well. So, I just go up and remind them this is for fun and I'm doing my best, refereeing isn’t an easy role.
“I'm doing something positive for the community. I also like when I get the respect back from the players. I enjoy the interaction before the game, asking how their season is going, what upcoming matches they’re looking forward to, that kind of thing, and it instantly settles everyone in.”
We recently introduced yellow armbands for referees under the age of 18, which Emma is a supporter of: “It’s a good idea because it serves as a gentle reminder to others that you are protected in the safeguarding rules and still learning and growing on your refereeing journey so they should think before they make negative comments.
“It also gives them some time to reflect and realise that they should be supporting the individual and hopefully it encourages more young referees to register.”
It’s beyond just a hobby now for Emma. She’s always looking for ways to improve and has many people she looks up to in the game.
“At the start, I used to do it to stay in the game, help youth girls teams and earn some money. I used to get very nervous but now that I've got into it my confidence has grown, as it continues to each game, and now I look forward to the matches. Practice and consistency is key.
“I've just joined the Sussex RA-FA Youth Council, I think it's very good to have people with lots of different experiences at different levels, and ages in the group to represent all youth referees. I look up to all the other members and it’s always amazing to see what goals they’ve reached and how we can all progress.
“I saw that Taz was at the referee CORE (Centre of Refereeing Excellence) the other week and it’s things like that which really inspire me to go as far as I can. Also, with the WSL just starting and them having all female officials, it motivates me even more, because I know that if they can do it what’s stopping me. However there’s still a long way to go in the women's’ game especially with the referees not being able to be full time .
“I think people like Rebecca Welch and Sian Massey-Ellis, who are officiating the men's game as well as the women’s, are amazing role models to show that we don't just have to go through the women's game, we can also progress in the men's game.”
Joining a Referee Association is a great step for young officials to take. But Emma didn’t stop there and was successful in applying for The FA Leadership Academy.
“Since I started refereeing, I wanted to take every experience that comes my way and FALA stood out to me as an unmissable opportunity. I saw it advertised and thought, ‘wow, this would be a great course to go on.’
“I decided to apply but didn't think I was going to get in so, when I got the acceptance reply, I was so excited about it. We had very special guests like Baroness Sue Campbell, David James and industry leaders in many different roles up and down the country.
“It was very good to hear how they got into football and what they did to get to where they are now. It’s important that people know that there are many different roles in football. Just because you're not a talented player doesn’t mean you can’t get involved in the sport at the highest level. There are endless other roles that you can do within the FA.
“They also spoke on the course about the importance of inclusivity and making everyone feel like they belong. There may be people at school/club that want to get involved in sport but they think they’re not very good at playing so can’t be. However they may be really good at other roles such as broadcasting, marketing, officiating or managing, so it's just letting everyone know there is a role for them in sport is essential”
She also spoke of her future goals, adding: “I'd love to just see how it goes and take every opportunity to get as far as I can. I think it’s crucial to actively seek out opportunities because I can’t progress if I don’t build up my network of contacts or look for the next big things to become a part of.
“I saw an interview Sussex FA did with Michelle Watkins. She said it would be good for the County FA to have an all-female officiating team on one of the county cups. I think that would be an amazing goal. It would be great for the girls to have role models that they can relate to covering the events and I would love to have a part in that.
“I think it's great to keep all of my options open. I'm just going to do as much as I can, in both the men's and the women's game. I think mainly, I'd want to go through the women's game and I don’t think that should be seen as any worse than the men’s game. I don’t want young girls going into officiating believing that the premier league is the end goal, the WSL is growing so much and having strong female role models controlling the games gives it even more elevation.
“I'd love to go into sports journalism. I think, going back to the women's game, it's such a current topic with how well they're improving and the exposure on TV that it would just be right the path for me.
“I'd like to work with other strong women to inspire more girls to take up leadership roles in sport. I think it's always good to have female role models in the men's game. But we need to progress so that referees don't have to go through the men's game just to be seen as a professional.”
As well as refereeing, Emma has also tried to get experience as an assistant, often found lining her sister’s games.
“I think it's good to get the experience of the different officiating roles because it allows you to keep your eye in and you're being a better help to the referee. Normally if they get a parent that is not as aware or focused on the role it can make the players frustrated and just lead to complaints.
“At least they know that I'm qualified, I know what I'm doing and I'm going to be unbiased. I think it's also improving my refereeing as well because I get to learn from other refs.
“I think that's why I'm so passionate about wanting to inspire others, because some people don't get that support from their families or friends to actually get involved in sport. I just want to let people know that just because you're a girl doesn't mean you can't get involved in it. Look at all of these other amazing women that are doing these amazing things.”
It’s been a pleasure to talk to Emma on her refereeing journey so far, whilst a short one. You get the feeling nothing will faze her and with the attitude she has, we’re sure you’ll see her go a long way.
Lastly, she added words of advice for aspiring officials: “Don't be scared about it, you're never going to know if you're good at it, or if you enjoy it, unless you try it. Hopefully, I'm going to try and put on some events this season for female only refereeing with the inspiration of the Women's Euros just around the corner.
“Just to give a little introduction, show them what it's about and explain that if anything does happen to you in a match, and if you do feel uncomfortable, there are people that you can talk to, and ways to deal with it, it's not going to be like that every time.”
For more information about refereeing in Sussex please contact:
T: 01903 768573