Controlling the Game with Communication

By Tom Young, Lead Sports Science Advisor, The Ref Online

If you strip away the technical knowledge and the pressure, the key to officiating at all levels lies in an ability to manage people and authentically communicate with a range of personalities within a sporting environment. Think of it like a football club or a business. The talent or ability is often there, but if that talent isn’t managed or coached effectively, the results won’t follow.

Each referee (or any human being) has their own behavioural style. Broadly speaking, personality can be broken down into 4 main areas – assertiveness, sociability, calmness, and conformity – and there a number of assessments that can profile these areas.

No one individual is the same. Each one of us is a unique combination of different character traits, conditioning and experiences. A level of self-awareness regarding behavioural style, strengths and areas for improvement is a great starting point for any individual striving to perform at any level.

Referees must maintain control when dealing with highly charged situations, fixtures spiralling out of control, irate managers, baying supporters, emotional players and big egos. Human nature would dictate that individuals will deal with these situations in different ways. For example, some referees might chat comfortably with players, others may say very little and communicate using body language, and some may take a more authoritarian approach.

As in life, there is no one size fits all approach to refereeing.

In addition to self-awareness, another characteristic of elite referees is the knowledge and ability to recognise the behavioural styles of others and consciously adapt their own behaviour accordingly to ensure the game runs smoothly.

Some real-life examples:

  • If a player is an extremely assertive individual, who responds to direct communication, the referee may feel the need to take a more aggressive ‘no messing’ approach.
  • If a player is a clear extrovert, the referee might decide to take the time to talk to him or her and explain a decision.
  • If a player is impatient and unpredictable, the referee may be quicker in their communication, getting the point across without slowing the game down.
  • If a player is highly structured and analytical (i.e. stubborn), the referee might need to take the time to explain why a certain decision has been made to avoid an ongoing exchange of views.

Key Points

  • An awareness of human behaviour is essential in refereeing and this is something that can be developed with education and experience. Technical knowledge and decision making are only two elements of the job. Communicating those decisions and managing the reaction, when each situation is context specific, is another.
  • Referees do make mistakes…because they’re human and they’re making instantaneous decisions in real time. We should enhance this side of refereeing, explore it in more detail and learn from the best – not try to remove it from the game.
  • If the game was run by robots, there would be less drama, less common sense, and fewer talking points. Now that would be boring!


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