The hardest decisions I have to make at these ages is when body contact between opponents rises to the level of a foul. Several factors affect my thinking:

1. Body sizes can vary widely. I’ve seen U10 boys who were 5′-6″ and 130 lbs playing against U10 boys who were 4′-6″ and 70 lbs. Even nominal contact between the two can send the smaller child flying.

2. The kids simply haven’t developed an appreciation for the immutable laws of physics. Many race for every ball at full speed seemingly unaware of the potential for injury when collisions occur with opponents, or even teammates, who are doing the same thing. The objective is clear to the kids (i.e. get the ball); the consequences of the behavior in trying to obtain the objective are not.

3. Because of leg strength (or lack of it), and field size, the game is played very close. It is not uncommon, in my experience, to see 5 or 6 players within 5 yards of the ball. More players within a small area results in more body contact. Legs get tangled, bodies collide, arms are raised in defense etc.

Certainly, I can apply the same standards at younger levels that I do at older levels, but such behavior would result in many, many whistles, stoppages, discussions, frustration and just not much fun for the players, coaches or parents.

In my view, I simply can’t use the same standard for younger ages.

Typically, what I look for before whistling is more of an attempt to make contact with a player than with the ball. But that makes my decisions more subjective, and that subjectivity may frustrate coaches and players. More subjectivity also allows coaches and players to perceive they are being judged more harshly than their opponents.

I’m wondering if I’m looking for the right thing. Is there a more objective way to determine when body contact at these younger ages is foul play?

USSF answer (October 15, 2008):
We find that too many referees whistle for contact that is not illegal under the Laws of the Game. A certain amount of contact is common in soccer and, if it is not clearly careless, reckless, or done with excessive force, it should be allowed. Players do get tangled up when both are going for the ball or trying to shoot or clear the ball. In addition, children grow at different rates and, as you point out, there can be great disparities in size (height and build) between players of the same age

Referees should be careful to judge the way in which acts are committed. If the player or players appear to be otherwise playing fairly, yet the precise definition of a charge is violated because of differences in height and build, the intelligent referee will understand and give the benefit of the doubt to the player of greater or lesser height and build, whichever applies.

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