You Can Stand Me Up at the Gates of Hell But I Won’t Back Down

I’ve always been addicted to work. 40-hour work weeks have been a reality for me since I was 16 years old, not really because I love working per se, but mostly because I like to keep busy and like having money even more. 

But before I could stress myself out at the restaurant job I worked at as a salad bar attendant/dishwasher/hostess at 16, I had a one-season stint as a youth soccer referee.

It was during this first job experience I acquired the most important skill of my career.

I was in those awkward teen years between 9th grade and 10th grade. I had way too much time on my hands and way too little money to fill that time with anything good. My teenage counterparts were whiling away their summer at the pool while I was hiding out in my basement reading obscure sci-fi romance novels and writing really terrible angsty poetry.

I was desperately in need of something worthwhile to do.

I don’t remember who suggested I apply for the referee position – my parents desperate for me to do something with my life or me – but in lieu of nothing better to do that particular evening, I tentatively showed up to an informational meeting. I took one look at the thick rule book and knew I had to master it. (Just writing that sentence makes me want to gag a little. I’m such a nerd.) I started studying right away and was ready for my first game in no time.

Like any normal person new to a job, I struggled for the first few weeks. It’s really difficult to focus on a soccer ball for 35 minutes at a time. I only got a 10-minute break each game and often reffed back-to-back games. In today’s world, losing focus is not only accepted, it’s encouraged for small amounts of time throughout the work day. But when the ball goes out of bounds and I didn’t even see it because I was daydreaming about Pacey Witter, you can bet I felt like a jerk.

There’s something else you should know about youth soccer: it makes normal people absolutely crazy. Moms who I’d see as Eucharistic Ministers in church on Sunday morning would scream profanity when I called a questionable out-of-bounds in favor of the opposing team. There was a lot of intimidation involved – from the parents, the coaches, even from some of the players, who were really only a few years younger than me.

But for some reason, I ended up being pretty good at it. I excelled at ignoring adults with opinions other than my own (something that worked out well for me at this job but drove my parents nuts at home). I was punctual, treated coaches with respect and was generally amiable with my fellow refs.

But it wasn’t until the end of the season that I gained my most valuable career skill to date.

After making a close call in a tight game, a middle-age male coach charged onto the field, coming at me at full steam, red-faced and screaming about my incompetence. It was terrifying, and I immediately started retreating. I picked up my left foot to take a shaky step backward, but something made me pause.

In that moment I realized I had a choice to make – I could back down and allow this person to tell me I’m wrong in the most ineffective way possible or I could stand my ground and refuse to let him bully me about my decision.

I put that foot firmly back on the ground and ended up getting sprayed with spit and (misplaced) rage for about 15 seconds until two assistant coaches pulled him back. After restoring order, I reffed the last 10 minutes of the game relatively unscathed.

The next weekend, my boss came to watch me ref. After my last game of the day, he sat me down to talk, and I was sure I was about to get reprimanded for the previous week’s incident.

But my boss said only one thing, “I hear a coach got in your face last week and you didn’t back down. That takes guts. You’re a good ref – you know your stuff. I want you to ref the state games this year.”

In short, standing my ground got me promoted. 

I’m not advocating arrogance or unwillingness to listen to others. But when you know in your gut you’re right – even when everyone’s telling you you’re wrong – don’t back down. Steadfast assertiveness, self-assurance and calm self-control in the face of opposition will take you far in the world. I’m grateful I was able to learn this crucial lesson early on in life and have carried it with me ever since.

What about you? What was your first job? What lifelong value did it provide you? Share your story in a comment below.

  • Brian
    September 8, 2015

    First a +1 for a Pacey reference.

    I really enjoyed this post as I’ve been a volunteer soccer coach for 20 years. Right after high school I started coaching and last year was my first year not doing it. Retirement at 40. Why? I love the sport. I love coaching kids. I love the wet grass and how it smells for the first game of the day.

    I was finally beat down emotionally from dealing with parents/adults associated with the game. Sure I had challenges with players from time to time, but I took those as part of the job that was manageable…fixable…and sometimes those kids just need a responsible adult in their life to be their anchor. Those are the years I’ll always remember.

    The parents. The adults. Year after year. I slowly started to HATE when the season was getting ready to start. And that’s definitely not how it’s supposed to go. I’m very impressed – and not surprised – you stood up for yourself that day and being so young. I watch YOUNG referees get abused almost every game. And then on the back end everyone complains about how bad referees are and we need better ones. Maybe it’s because we run them off and can’t let them grow into better referees.

    I totally agree with you on how something like this is a marker for you for life. For me, unfortunately, it represents some of my best times and worst. It’s why I’ve made a decision to no longer volunteer my time as much as I do before in anything. I appreciative of all those people that do volunteer and help…and I understand they are not perfect.

    Thanks for a great post

    • Allison
      September 9, 2015

      Thanks Brian! Coaching is such a rewarding experience – I’ve never done it (is tutoring the same? lol), but I have a few friends who coach really young kids. My dad coached my sister’s soccer team for like 8 years. The parents are quite literally the very worst part of it, arguably the only bad part of coaching. I’m a big believer that playing sports doesn’t just keep kids in shape, it builds character, discipline and drive. Being a part of that would be really cool.

      It sucks that the parents were such a problem that you quit, but I certainly don’t blame you. I’m sure the pay wasn’t worth getting harassed after practices and games (and before? And DURING?!). Coaching is more volunteering than anything else.

      As for my refereeing experiences – I got bullied quite a bit on and off the field by overzealous parents and coaches, but after the experience I blogged about above, I grew numb to it. That being said, I got a job at a restaurant the next year, so I didn’t have to deal with it year and year like you did.

      My goal for being a mother of children who play sports (please, God, don’t give me kids who don’t play sports!), is to be normal and understand that 5th grade soccer is not the World Cup. Also, I will buy the coaches and refs cookies and thank them for their time.

      Thanks again for reading my posts, Brian! I love all of your feedback and insights.

  • Brian
    September 9, 2015

    Yeah the only time I got paid for coaching was when I was at Mizzou as a student. I got paid $1500/semester to coach the U12 boys travel team for Columbia. After that, it’s been all volunteer. The money was nice as a student but over time it was because I just liked being out there…I coached 10+ years after Mizzou before I even had kids cause it was fun. Truly, the scariest thing nowadays and what factored into me quitting is gun violence. I had a few instances where parents confronted me before/during/after the games and I’ve had to go stop fights between parents of OTHER games because they were nose to nose with each other in front of kids in our league. And these were SCCYSA recreation league games for U8 girls in this one instance. The odd thing is that people have gotten so mad at me for my coaching “philosphy” and “strategy” as opposed to how I treat their children. I’m not a yeller. I don’t over coach. I usually am the coach that is sitting on the bench talking to players when they are off the field as opposed to the crazy coaches that are YELLING at the kids or telling them EXACTLY EVERYTHING THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING on the field. It’s a sore subject for me as you can tell.

    • Allison
      September 10, 2015

      Adults fighting over youth soccer is crazy. Just nuts. I’m sorry you can’t do something you enjoyed so much, because of the parents!

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