A discussion by two experts on controlling yourself before you can control others

Referees in football, at all levels, are often the subject of great scrutiny, criticism and abuse.  In this article, Keys to Referee asks two authors about referees in football the frequency asked questions posed to and about match officials.  Stuart Carrington is the author of Blowing the Whistle: The Psychology of Football Refereeing and is a Lecturer in Sports Coaching Science at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, London.  Dr Tom Webb is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Management and Development and author of Elite Soccer Referees: Officiating in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A and the forthcoming book Referees, Match Officials and Abuse: Research and implications for policy.   

Why do you think referees receive such abuse?

TOM WEBB (TW): There are culturally historically ingrained issues which exist in football. Abuse towards referees in football is not a new phenomenon, it has occurred for centuries, dating back to the very early evolution of the game, following codification in 1863. However, referees are an easy target, they are someone else, other than the player or coach, who can be blamed. Sometimes they are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. This does not make it acceptable though. A further issue is that referees have very different aims for the successful outcome of a match than players, coaches and spectators. Referees are there to uphold the laws of the game, they have no particular interest in who wins or loses the game, something which players, coaches and spectators all have in common. This creates a situation that can accentuate abuse. We focus on this further in our forthcoming book, Referees, match officials and abuse: Research and implications for policy.

STUART CARRINGTON (SC):  The culture and historical issues that Tom mentions are both significant and expertly dissected in his research.  Unfortunately for referees, they not only have to contend with the demands of the job and unfavourable cultural constraints and expectations – that are very real – but also the fact that humans tend to attribute success and failures to very different things.  One important theory I discuss in my book, Blowing the Whistle: The Psychology of Football Refereeing, is attribution theory.  This theory posits that athletes will attribute success to internal and stable factors, such as ability or effort, but failures to external and unstable factors.  This could be luck (e.g., “it wasn’t our day today”) but the referee makes an excellent fall-guy here as well: they change every game and are external to the team.  People do this to protect their own ego and motivation.  It is unlikely to change, so hopefully awareness of this theory will help referees and it interesting to consider the historical, cultural and psychological reasons behind referee abuse.

Do you think the media help or harm referees?

TW: I think the media coverage of referees is improving. This is really important because a positive representation of referees and what they do can help to improve the knowledge of supporters, and in turn improve the environment for referees. However, the enhanced coverage of referees in the media undoubtedly increases the pressure on these individuals in the Premier League for example. Never before have decisions been dissected and viewed from so many camera angles, in slow motion with a wide variety of technological assistance for broadcasters. The media certainly have a big role to play in the perception of referees, and I think that some outlets need to be mindful of this when being critical of the performance of a particular official. It is better to consider why any mistake might have been made, or if considering standards of officiating, avoiding specific, individual criticism, but rather focusing on the system, the management/development processes and training that referees receive. This might help to explain why an error or mistake has been made and what we can do to stop this occurring again.

SC: The media have a tremendous responsibility to explain why decisions were made rather than focussing on mistakes or simply criticising the decision.  For instance, when they are privy to slow motion replays or reverse camera angles, of course they will find errors.  I think it would help if they explained things from the official’s perspective.  Additionally, I’m frequently shocked at how many in the media do not appear to understand the laws.  The ‘trickle down’ effect here is significant.  Role modelling is important, and it is therefore natural that fans will listen to well-known pundits over FA statements.

What psychological and social skills do you think an elite referee needs?

SC: The role is incredibly demanding and varied, so it is difficult to sums this up in a paragraph.  Psychologically, referees need to have excellent cognitive-perception skills and be able to alternate quickly between different types of attention.  For example, some people when officiating for the first time may focus solely on the ball when doing so can result in missing vital information.  A good official cannot let previous decisions influence them, something that research has shown is very difficult to do.  Vitally, they must be able to show little consideration for what others think of them and their decisions, while at the same time exhibiting great social skills.  These social skills are key for knowing how and when to explain decisions and for managing players while maintaining as much consistency as possible.  For greater detail, I would obviously refer people to my book.

TW: For elite referees the ability to communicate effectively with players, to explain decisions and to be able to manage quite complex situations, all during the course of a match, are really important. In addition, the ability to concentrate and to block out and mitigate the surroundings are essential skills. When officiating in large stadiums with a lot of supporters or with very vocal teams and players, maintaining a clear head, and being able to concentrate in the moment, when required is important.

Which of the above skills do you think are most important for a grass roots referee to work on?
TW: There is certainly a growing argument to consider the role of an individual’s life experience and working experience when developing referees. For example, some jobs lend themselves to providing and enhancing some of the skills that referees require in order to be successful. Professions such as teaching and the police force (among others) help individuals to be able to converse and talk to people, to communicate effectively and also to manage difficult situations. All skills which are important for referees as they develop and when they officiate at the elite level. Clearly not all referees will come from these backgrounds, and it might be that additional training supplements these skills for these referees. This would require a different approach to recruitment in particular, but it might be that this improves retention rates over time. It is something that is worth investigating further.

SC: Firstly, I would echo what Tom says about retention.  I firmly believe that greater awareness and practice of psychological training would benefit referees.  At the moment, referees at grass roots level receive no guidance or advice in this area at all.  All skills are important but, if pushed, I think referees should focus on social skills.  Selling decisions is vital and knowing when to communicate and when to ignore protests is key to success at lower levels of the game.

What psychological training should a referee participate in every week?

SC: The most important part of the question is not what type of psychological training should be done, but the part about it being practiced every week.  Psychological training is like physical training: if it is not systematic the results are limited.  Most training is fundamentally about trying to make performance predictable.  Players condition themselves so their performance in the 90th minute is as close to their performance in the 1st minute as possible.  Referees need to adopt a similar approach, which is difficult as the nature of their role is to deal with situations that are often difficult to foresee.  I would also advise grass roots referees to establish a pre-match routine, participate in self-reflection frequently and watch other referees at a similar level as often as possible.  Doing so will help them expect the unexpected and develop experience which we know is vital in insulating officials from pressures and influences.

I am also particularly interested in the role of emotional regulation, as ‘simulated training’ can only achieve so much.  Essentially, a referee brings their own feelings and emotions onto the pitch with them, which can impact performance.  There is important work being done in this area.

TW: Some of this will depend on the level at which a referee is officiating. Positive reinforcement is important.
The ability to demonstrate resilience is arguably essential for all referees, particularly given the issues to which they can be exposed, such as verbal and physical abuse for example. Psychosocial research often concentrates on the prediction of performance following the failure or inadequate performance of an initial task and then the resilience demonstrated by the performer in subsequently completing the task successfully, or understanding the perceptions, thoughts, emotions and behaviours of athletes who have shown propensity for adaptation and successfully overcoming adversity in sport. In terms of referees the management of the stressors and demands placed upon them mean that the infrastructures, procedures and frameworks to promote facilitative and supportive environments for referees become essential. Any increased support would provide referees with the environment to improve training and performance through the development of reactive resilience. This would help in and following abusive situations, following an incorrect decision, when evaluating performance (both positively and negatively) and also in wider society.

Do you think referees should penalise every infringement (e.g., tugging a shirt at a corner or bringing throws back to the correct place)?

TW: This is an interesting question. The laws of the game are there for a reason, and therefore should be upheld. However, as I elaborate upon in the final question, there are differences between the English game, the Premier League and other leagues. In England we accept more physical contact, player behaviour can also be quite different between leagues and competitions, so that will all be a part of the performance of referees in England. there also should be some form of ‘calibration’ for referees. Referees are consistently ‘calibrating’. Calibration depends on things such as time of the match and aspects related to external control, such as crowd noise/behaviour and also player actions and behaviour. Referees assess performances differently depending on circumstances such as time of the season and what is ‘at stake’ for the teams and players they are officiating. However, how this can be reconciled with applying the letter of the law is an interesting conundrum.

SC: Such a tough question.  From the comfort of an armchair, a positive answer seems obvious.  However, there are a number of factors to consider.  Fans might not like this answer, but a referee who punishes every infringement would soon be criticised for making it ‘about them’ or for not letting the game ‘flow’.  I cannot imagine a referee bringing a throw-in back two yards every time as being particularly popular amongst fans or players.  Referees are there to apply the laws as consistently as possible, but the purpose of this is for an entertaining and safe game of football to be played.  It is important to remember that this is the ultimate goal.

Would it help if referees spoke to the press after the game to explain decisions?

TW: This used to happen. Referees in the Premier League did speak to the press after matches, up until approximately 2001, however it was not deemed that it helped the referee and also that supporters, players and coaches were not really listening to the explanation, and wanted to merely know about certain contentious decisions during a match. Other countries do permit referees to speak to the media after a game, for example in Norway and Australia. In Australia in particular, they have conducted this discussion with the referee quite differently to what we have seen before, and this permits the explanation of decisions and the process that the referee has gone through in order to reach the decision that they have. If it is done well and for the right reasons referees engaging with the media after a match can be beneficial. I think there would need to be strict guidelines around the questions that were permitted to be asked, if it were to be reintroduced in the Premier League.

SC: From a psychological perspective, yes.  People tend to accept decisions, both good and bad, if they can understand the process behind them.  The key point, that Tom has mentioned, is that it is done well, with the intention to educate and understand rather than undermine or criticise.

Do you think this would help referees show their true personalities (e.g., someone like Mike Dean is seen as arrogant when those that know him say that is far from the truth)?

SC: There is some interesting research in this area.  One study found that players like ‘approachable’ referees that communicate often.  However, the same study established that this was because the players felt they could influence the ref!  Referees are often accused of being arrogant, but this is because their job is to make unpopular decisions in high pressure situations and stick with them.  Additionally, they must hold incredible self-belief to resist the intense pressure put upon them.  So, it is true that the opportunity for referees to display their true characteristics might help fans have some empathy (although the answer to the first question about why referees receive abuse means this may to be short lived).  When I am asked if referees are arrogant, my answer is the same: ‘does it matter?’  Diego Maradona used to say he had two personalities, Diego and Maradona, the latter being arrogant, cocky and ruthless.  Without this ‘edge’ would he have been the same player?  Would Ronaldo be as exciting without believing he is the best?  I think we should judge referees on performances.

TW: I think it would help, if it were done for the right reasons as discussed in the previous question. Referees are being permitted to do some media related work, certainly more than they have been permitted to do in the previous 10 years or so. We have seen productions on SKY with Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher and Mike Dean was also allowed to feature on That Peter Crouch Podcast. Whether this has been a conscious move by PGMOL I am unsure, but we have seen referees in the media more often in recent months/years. However, it is also a fine line. It is not a big step for the media and commentators to accuse referees of a desire to be the centre of attention. So overexposure is something which requires careful management and consideration.

Should referees only be approached by a certain player (e.g., a captain) or only by the manager?

TW: This approach works in rugby union and rugby league, although there is evidence to suggest that this is becoming less prevalent and that other players are also approaching the referee as well, although it arguably does differ depending on the level of fixture as well. There are issues related to the abuse of referees in rugby union, rugby league and cricket, it is not just football that has to grapple with some of these challenges. In terms of introducing this in football, it might make situations more manageable for referees, and you do see referees use the captain at certain times to get a message across to the players of a certain team. However, it would be a cultural shift and therefore the behavioural change from the players might take some time.

SC: I think in the case of contentious or key decisions, referees should only speak to the captain.  Situations can quickly become unmanageable or ill-tempered otherwise.  A fantastic example of this in action can be seen in the 2018 FA Cup Final, when Michael Oliver told the Chelsea players he would speak to their captain, Gary Cahill, about why no red card would be shown to Phil Jones after conceding a penalty.  The situation could have got out of hand quickly, but by explaining the decision to Cahill (who accepted the explanation) the other players followed suit.  Importantly, the official maintained control and a positive example to spectators was set.  It is easier said than done, however, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons that would take time to address.

How does a referee block out the abuse that is shouted at them?

TW: Whether a referee can block out the abuse will depend, at least in part, on the individual referee. Some referees are more thick skinned and can deal with most abuse that they receive, other referees might take the abuse more personally and therefore it could have an impact on their well being. Abuse, and how it manifests itself, will also differ between the elite game and grassroots/youth football. The settings and associated implication of any abuse differ between different levels of officiating. For example, in the elite game the abuse might be more vociferous from a large number of people if the abuse comes from the crowd, and it could impact upon decision making. If the abuse is from players, it is unlikely to escalate beyond verbal abuse, particularly with the security presence at professional football fixtures. However, at grassroots level, situations have the real possibility of escalating to physical abuse, given the isolation in which referees often operate.

SC: Referees often report that they do not hear abuse but occasionally they must hear dissent from players and spectators.  This is why I think understanding and practicing emotional regulation is vital for officials: it is imperative to not allow the opinion of others to sway your judgment.  Referees can do this by practicing rational thinking, utilising positive self-talk and discussing performances with peers and mentors frequently.

Following on from that, how does a referee overcome setbacks (e.g., VAR informing them they have gotten a decision wrong)?

TW: This differs from individual to individual, and it is also why the Select Group referees have full time sport psychology support. It can be difficult for any of us to process and move on from mistakes and referees are no different in that respect. Of course, they have a lot of support and feedback to be able to analyse and rationalise any error that might be made, and this is also important for personal development processes. However, this is different to a VAR informing a referee that they have got a decision wrong in the middle of a match. We still do not understand fully the impact of this on the individual referee, and how this might impact performance. This is certainly an area of research that would be interesting to explore.

SC: Again, I would refer officials back to rational thinking and how emotional and behavioural outcomes they may have after a bad performance or decision – such as increased anxiety or anger – does not help them achieve their goal.  Again, positive self-talk can also help here, as can seeing the situation as a challenge (e.g., ‘this is a great opportunity for me to show that I can get back on track’) rather than a threat (e.g., ‘I’ve made a mistake, another one would be disastrous’).

What one change to the laws or training would you endorse to help referees?

SC: Regarding training, greater psychological support and education.  Officials have always been ‘behind the curve’ regarding training as the focus has always been on playing and coaching.  This is the one area they can make the largest gains in to help catch up.  We know that training helps officials improve their performance, so this improvement would be greater with psychological support.  Although those at the highest level receive it, it is officials lower down the ladder that would benefit the most.

Regarding laws, VAR needs to be implemented with the on-field official in mind.  Essentially, they need to be one who makes the final decision.  They need to see the pitch-side monitor and have autonomy over the outcome.

TW: Anything that helps to make their job easier! I’m still unconvinced with VAR and the ‘assistance’ that it is giving referees, and I’m hoping that this improves as the technology is better understood and the protocols are a bit clearer. I think one of the biggest aspects of training referees today is that there is still such a lack of standardisation across countries. The fitness tests can differ from country to country, as can the measurement and time requirements of these fitness tests. The FIFA and UEFA tests have different times attached, and there are also differences in the training delivered to referees from country to country. There are differences in the VAR protocols from league to league and competition to competition, and this is also the same with Goal Line Technology, where different providers and systems can be used between competitions. The biggest assistance would be some moves towards greater uniformity for referees. This would also assist with training and development for European Championships and the World Cup.

Finally, do you think officiating in Britain is different to officiating in Europe?

SC: This is definitely one for Tom, who has conducted and engaged with much more research in this area.  What I would say is that one major difference is the amount of ‘homework’ referees do in Europe as opposed to Britain.  Tom reports in his excellent book Elite Soccer Referees: Officiating in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, that officials in Spain will often study which players have a reputation for aggressive behaviour, something that has a major impact on disciplinary decisions.

TW: Yes, there are differences between officiating in Britain when compared to other countries. We published a study which considered changes in player behaviour and how this influenced subsequent referee behaviour across different leagues in 2015. We also considered differences between leagues in terms of expected referee performance and decision making, what is permitted in some leagues compared to other leagues, and how players behave differently in certain domestic leagues compared to others. This was analysed and related to cultural theory, which helps to explain why certain behaviours are more acceptable in some countries than others. There are some significant differences in terms of player behaviour and this would, in turn, mean that referees deal with some situations on the field of play differently. A good example is simulation. In Spain and Italy (in particular) simulation is accepted as part of the game, and it is the referee’s fault if they do not detect it, not the players fault for acting in that way. In the Premier League and generally in football in Britain, we are not very tolerant of simulation, and therefore we are less likely to see it (although we all know it does happen) and we often see players that come from other countries changing the behaviour as a result of the lack of tolerance of this behaviour in Britain.

Stuart Carrington
Stuart Carrington

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