Psychology of a Referee

Psychology of a Referee

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Football referees fulfill a complex, indispensable and equally unappreciated task. They are expected to facilitate fair competition in accordance with the laws and spirit of the game by taking accurate decisions, leading the players and managing emotionally heated matches. Striving for meeting these requirements, they usually act under highest physical strain and psychological stress demanding a thick skin and cool mind under pressure.

However, the human proneness to error, the singularity of perception and the imbalance between a limited availability of information and a vast diversity of interpretation with regard to specific match incidents ensure that football referees make – more or less objective – mistakes. As a result, match officials are used to intense comments and discussions after the game both on and off the field of play, e.g. as part of the media scrutiny.

Mostly the media including TV, newspapers or websites focus on the decisions taken by match officials. This technical aspect of the job is only one facet of football refereeing, though – and there are much more dimensions that distinguish between good and very good referees.

Given the understandable focus on decisions taken by referees, it is not surprising that there is hardly any high-quality literature on the psychological dimension of football refereeing.

Why the psychological dimension of refereeing is crucial

Relatively little is known how referees manage to stay emotionally stable under pressure. Although the term “personality” is often used in the context of referees, it is unclear what precisely is meant by it. Most referees get promoted after completing fitness and laws of the game tests, but what role do their management abilities and personality traits play? What tools and methods can referees apply on the field of play to keep matches and players under their control, what leadership styles exist and how does effective communication look like? And finally – how do referees manage to continuously improve, how do they organize and manage themselves in their high-strain-job? And these are only some questions that usually only play a small role in referee education.

I cannot give you complete answers to all of these questions listed above, but I will give my very best to offer you new insights and perspectives to approach these questions. To do so, psychological, management and motivational theories and studies will be used and explained.

And there is a real urgent need to do so: We experience that the differences between referees are getting smaller. Also thanks to the Video Assistant Refereeing system the performance density gets tighter on a decision-taking-level: Different referees take – with regard to their quality – more accurate or at least more similar decisions. From a certain level onwards, all referees possess extreme fitness levels and are able to run more kilometres than an average football player. So also in terms of fitness, the quality of different referees as real athletes has become more comparable over the last years.

In order to be successful in modern football refereeing, match officials therefore need to be strong on the softer parameters like game-management, communication, personality or self-management. Excelling in these areas has the power to be a real competitive advantage among referees and – apart from these considerations – can make your life much easier on the field.

Modern football needs referees who understand themselves and act as game-managers – and not as policemen. 

This is my deep conviction based on my experiences as a football referee and Masters student of Business Psychology. Soon, there will be a first article which elaborates what is meant by being a game-manager – which really is the basis for everything that is going to appear on this website.

The following overview shows the dimensions where modern football referees have to excel in. PsychRef will present you psychological theories, models and content that might shed new light on most of these areas and give you valuable tips how to develop in them.

The Psychology of Modern Football Refereeing

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