Recall a time when, during a football match, you saw a player (or players) lose their composure and control. One type of incident that comes to mind is the so-called ‘mass brawl’; a cluster of players, frustrated, angry and primed for physical competition acting in a very aggressive manner towards each other. It is, of course, the referee’s job (with the help of their assistants) to observe the behaviour of the players and punish those guilty of over-stepping the mark. The prospect of dealing with this may cause what psychologists label cognitive anxiety: negative stress that manifests itself psychologically. This is different to somatic anxiety, where negative stress is seen in physical symptoms such as sweating, restlessness and the desire to visit the toilet a bit more frequently than normal! While these are unpleasant, they are normal sensations that may not adversely affect performance. Cognitive anxiety, on the other hand, can wreak havoc on an official’s display.
Cognitive anxiety has many unhelpful consequences for referees. It can create confusion when making decisions, it can slow reaction times and it can cause us to modify our behaviour. For example, one study found that when individuals are suffering from cognitive anxiety, they tend to ‘play it safe’ and avoid making risky decisions. This finding is replicated in other studies that relate directly to officials. For instance, Australian researchers found that referees in Australian Rules Football are more likely to make incorrect decisions when the score-line is close. This is somewhat surprising to sports fans who feel that, in high-pressure game-winning moments, officials have to get those calls right.
Stuart Carrington is a lecturer in Sports Coaching Science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. He is the author of Blowing the Whistle: The Psychology of Football Refereeing which is available here