Henrik, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:
I have often experienced in my games that players say “Hey, referee! He touched me with both his hands in my back!” But is it really true that a referee should always punish this? I don’t think that two hands TOUCHING the back of an opponent is careless. If he pushed him, then yes of course it could be a foul, but if he just touches the opponent, then why should I always punish it, if it’s harmless?
First of all, never say “never” (or “always”) when it comes to refereeing.
Second, in the large majority of cases, merely putting a hand (or even both hands) on the back of an opponent would not constitute a foul. After all, as you implicitly note, the foul is called “pushing” for a reason – if there is no push, there is no foul … usually.
Third, even the gentle breeze on the back of a player could, under some circumstances, be considered a foul if done by an opponent rather than weather conditions. The critical question is, why did the opponent put a hand (or hands) on the player’s back? What was the player doing at the time?
Consider the following scenario. A15 is at a location where she judges a ball struck high in the air is likely to descend and believes she is in a good position to gain control of that ball. Unexpectedly, she feels a hand (or hands) on her back with just the smallest amount of pressure. She was not aware of anyone there, much less close enough to have touched her, and, so far throughout the game, no opponent had touched her on the back in the normal course of play. She briefly turned her head to see who it was and, as a result, was distracted enough that, in fact, an opponent coming in from the side was able to get a foot on the ball before she could.
Now, was the touch on the back innocent … or was it deliberate? While not exactly a usual pushing foul, was it done for an unfair and otherwise unsporting purpose? Did all this occur under circumstances in which it would be an entirely normal, though unwelcome, response to be distracted … and particularly at a critical moment? What was her reaction to the event and to its consequences?
The older and more experienced the players, the less likely it is that events occur by accident. If you judge the contact was innocent, ordinary, and performed with no unfair intent (and particularly if it did not have the result of distracting the “touchee”), a simple comment in passing to the toucher to keep her hands off opponents would be sufficient. If you judge otherwise, and particularly if it had what you believe was the intended result (and advantage would not apply), call a pushing foul — it wasn’t strictly “careless” but it was certainly intentional and unfair.
As you move up the competitive ladder, your sense of what is a foul (and even whether it should be whistled or not) has to become more complex. It will need to take into account a number of questions that may not have occurred to you earlier in your officiating career. Mastering this change will get you recognized as capable of moving into more challenging games. It also means that you will need to recognize when there is a potential for the sort of game situation we just described above and will have moved into a position to see what most needs to be seen at that moment.