Debate vs. Dissent

Published on September 14, 2015


By:  John Van de Vaarst, National Clinician

The vast majority of individuals playing intercollegiate soccer today were raised in a manner that is different from several years ago.  These individuals were raised to question authority and seek out options to decisions to avoid consequences.  The word “no” appears to becoming a suggestion rather than an absolute.   Debating those in authority has become the norm both at home and in the classroom.  Intercollegiate soccer officials must recognize this “new thinking” and react to various situations accordingly.   Officials must now determine what is a debate and what is dissent.

Webster defines debate as “a discussion between people in which they express different options about something.”  Players of today want to debate with the coaches during practice and officials during games.  For example, a well known Division I coach advised that he decided that the practice for the day should focus on set plays and off the ball movement during these situations.  The captain decided it would be better to scrimmage.  The captain debated with the coach as to what was expected of the team for that practice.  Historically, this would never happen.  The coach would announce what was to be done and the players would perform the necessary drills.  Now the coach must spend time convincing the captain and players what is the best course of action for the day.  Coaches work with the players on a daily basis and still have the problem of the players accepting decisions.  It is even more difficult for an official who only is with the player on game day.  Officials must now be prepared to deal with the debaters and determine how far the discussions can go before there are problems with game control.  Officials must develop new communication skills so that players readily accept the decision and the game continues.  There is no “one size fits all” for this communication technique.  Each official must use his/her personality and communication skills to gain the respect of the players and maintain it throughout the game.  For example, a player is issued a caution for unsporting behavior.  The player immediately begins a discussion with the official that the caution was not warranted.  The official must be prepared to respond quickly and professionally so that the player accepts the decision and the game is restarted.  A good tip is to merely state the facts and ensure that the debate is ended quickly.

Dissent is defined by Webster as follows:  “to publicly disagree with an official opinion, decision, or set of beliefs.”  The NCAA Rule Book indicates in rule 12 that “showing dissent by word of mouth or action to decisions made by the referee:” is an offense that merits a caution.  The definition provides critical information in making a decision as to whether the player is dissenting or debating.  The key words are publicly disagreeing and official opinion.  The official has made a decision about a player’s action.  The player does not agree and publically comments about the decision or makes an inappropriate gesture.  This is when the official must determine if dissent has occurred.  If the official believes that the player is clearly acting in a manner that deserves the caution, it should be issued.  Ignoring dissent can lead to escalation of problems and loss of game control.  When the caution is issued, it may be good for the official to professionally advise the player the reason for the caution so that the opportunity to debate is greatly reduced.

Determining the difference between what is debating and what is dissenting is a fine line.  Officials must make this decision on a case-by-case basis.   Officials working the higher level games continually adjust his/her personality to maintain game control.  These officials know how to distinguish between debate and dissent and react accordingly.  In addition, these officials have developed a variety of communication skills to defuse situations before they escalate.  These verbal skills are also used to limit the debate from players and gain respect early in the game.  All officials should work diligently to improve communication skills so that players respect decisions with a minimum of debate.

Officials who have not been able to develop the communication skills may caution a player too soon.  The caution was issued as a result of a minimum of debate.  The official did not have the ability to react and talk to the player.  Later in the game the player commits an offence that clearly deserves a caution.  Now the official has the problem of determining whether to issue the second caution and eject the player or ignore the behavior.  If the official would have dealt with the first incident differently, this would not be an issue.  Game control can be impacted by this type of decision making.

In summary players have learned from an early age to debate authority and decisions.  Officials must now have the skills to deal with the players in a professional manner and limit the debate.  If a player crosses the line and dissents, the player should be dealt with and issued a caution.

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