The Impossibility of Perfect Refereeing

By Nathan Magill

Nathan Magill is an experienced sports administrator who is exceptionally passionate about all aspects of sports management. Nathan has worked in a range of referee and umpire coaching and administration roles with state and national governing bodies including Football Federation Australia, Football Federation South Australia and the South Australian Cricket Association.


Throughout our officiating journey there has always been the ongoing search for perfection. While this is something that is rarely achieved in any match, the expectations have never been higher for officials to achieve this on a more than frequent basis.

The overall level of acceptance for referees to make an error is decreasing, particularly in a world of technology which can dissect decisions from every angle and at slow speed. The benefit of this, is we can now analyse refereeing performances, identify areas for improvement and provide practical solutions to referees to improve their overall performances.

During my time as a referee and now as a referee coach, every referee I have worked with or coached has a common theme and that is the desire to learn and improve. They are always searching for the perfect game which is difficult when the game is not black and white with so much subjectivity around decision making and interpretation. This grey area is what we all love about our craft with decisions requiring discussion and analysis based on a number of factors. This is the challenge we enjoy albeit a difficult part of role.

Officiating across any sport is one of the few occupations where the tolerance for errors and opportunities for learning and improvement is not accepted as part of the course. A few months ago, I was at a tournament which focused on the talent identification of players where these players were learning to perfect their art of learning playing systems, formations and ability to adapt and perform under pressure. The general conversation around the ground were how great it was that players had the ability to gain match practice to improve their skills without fear of making a mistake. Unfortunately, this same mantra wasn’t afforded to a new referee who was putting into practice his learning from a recent new referees’ course.

After a couple of perceived missed free kicks there was the perception that the official needed more training before undertaking this carnival. Refereeing is unique in the sense that the theory learnings come from within the classroom, the real learning comes from officiating matches and plenty of them.

One of the best examples we see in dealing is at the awarding/not awarding of a penalty kick. If the decision is given or not awarded, there is a general feeling that these decisions are taken lightly. These are crucial match changing decisions which are made under pressure usually at the end of a high intensity run with a raised heart rate, add pressure and the heart rate rises further. There usually no appreciation to the difficulty that referees face during these match changing situations and ultimately no referee wants an error which affects the result.

Unfortunately, there is no ‘safety net’ when it comes to officiating matches within your local/state association however, as a referee you need to accept that mistakes are not only normal, but part of the journey improve your craft.

Referee training has come a long way since I commenced officiating in the early 2000’s in the sense we have the resources to provide video analysis of match situations, simulating match situations on the training ground is the norm and access to football across the globe is easier allowing our group to be able to watch matches to get an understanding of situation management and decision making. A great emphasis needs to be placed on simulation match situations with pressure utilising a fitness instructor to combine fitness into these sessions to not only simulate the match situation but the raised heart rate which is what is required at all levels of football.

I would encourage any referee to continue to endeavour for excellence by reviewing your performances, acknowledge your errors and share this with your colleagues to understand how we can improve each match and each season as we all strive ongoing improvement and enjoyment of our craft.

Need a solution purpose-built for officiating?