Dr Tom Webb has researched referee and match official working and operational practices across a range of sports, working in the sports industry for over 14 years. Tom is a senior lecturer in Sports Management and Development at The University of Portsmouth and is the founder and coordinator of the Referee and Match Official Research Network. He was kind enough to share his thoughts with the RefLIVE blog. You can check out his twitter profile here, check out his book about elite level football refereeing here and learn more about his research here.
What are the key characteristics of the most successful refereeing teams or associations you’ve worked with?
The most important aspects are often the management and organisation, as well as the support structures that exist around the referees. The important aspect is that referees can develop and perform effectively within these environments, and therefore the support services are very important to ensure that performance levels can be maximised. There is also often a significant amount of drive and focus aimed at improvement, and never wanting to settle for the status quo, or what is happening currently. I have seen some very successful referees and systems in different countries and all of those that are successful are still always striving to be better and to improve individual referee performances, decision making etc and the structures around the referees.
What are the most common officiating problems associated with both professional and amateur sports leagues?
There are some similarities here. We have just written a book chapter on the welfare of match officials, and one of the key aspects is the pressure that referees are under. Pressure exists at all levels of the game, it is just how this pressure manifests itself which is different. For example, at elite levels pressure exists around the scrutiny of performance, the media attention and the increased attention if an error is perceived to have been made, particularly if that error has consequences for the match being officiated. At lower league levels, the pressure that exists is also around the implication of the decisions that are made, but it is the outcomes which differ. If the performance or decisions that are made lead to abuse then there is a much more instant threat of verbal or physical abuse, in an environment which can be more hostile, with the referee often a lone individual surrounded by both teams, substitutes, managers/coaches and spectators. At both levels there is importance placed around the support networks, as well as the disciplinary processes and how well they support referees when they require these processes to be operational.
Is abuse the only reason for the high turnover rate of referees and umpires in all sports?
No. Abuse is often a contributory factor, but it is not the only reason for referee and match official discontinuation, it is not as simple as that. The reasons and their importance differ from sport to sport, and also between countries, and abuse is part of the issue, but it is not the only issue. Clearly from the research we have conducted verbal abuse in particular is a considerable problem in football, but also in other sports such as rugby union, cricket and rugby league, however we have also seen aspects such as the demand on the time of referees/match officials as a reason, as well as family reasons, travel time and distance increasing and some issues with a perceived lack of progression opportunities as well.
Would you recommend a referee mentoring program for grassroots sports associations?
We have included an increase in mentoring provision as part of our recommendations in a number of sport. Mentoring often exists, but it is not widespread and more often than not it is informal if it exists at all. It is difficult to provide mentors for all match official in a given sport, but it those that are new to officiating, the systems, exposure to some of the issues which we have already mentioned here that require the support initially. That is not to say that as you develop and improve you do not need a mentor, but it is not as important. Formalised mentoring programmes can have significant benefits to the individuals (both the mentor and the mentee) and also provide another layer of support when it is required. If they are set up and managed well mentoring programmes are an important part of the support network.
What are the key skills that you see in professional referees that enables them to progress to the top leagues?
This is difficult to contextualise. Many of the referees that I have met, worked with, or that have been involved in our research projects are extremely driven. This drive can be in the form of their training, the amount of extra training they will do, the level of preparation that they undertake in terms of knowing the teams, players, situations that might occur in a forthcoming match or it can be how hard they work at their basic skill set. When referees get to the professional leagues they all know the laws of the game, they are good decision makers and move well on the pitch – those skills are important because they are what has led them to the top of the game. But those referees that go further, that become professional, or operate at FIFA level have all of those aspects, but they also are even more driven and very focused on what they want to achieve. It is no different to elite players in that regard, it is often small thing s that make the difference.
Is there anything that all grassroots sports organisations should implement to help reduce their turnover rate of referees and umpires?
Based on the research that we have conducted and the collaboration and involvement with a number of governing bodies, there are some areas which can be applied across sports, although all sports have their own idiosyncrasies as well which should be acknowledged. However, across the research we have done at grassroots level the main element that is discussed is the support which referees/match officials receive. This tends to vary greatly between sports, countries and also regions within particular countries, although this is vitally important in terms of retaining match officials. Support can come from the training provided or the access to this training so match official feel prepared and can progress if they wish, to the disciplinary process and match officials feeling supported in this process. Issues related to communication around the disciplinary process are not uncommon, and this is something that match officials would like to see changed. This can be as simple as keeping the match official informed regarding the status of the report they have submitted concerning a particular team, p[layer or incident and also the outcome of the disciplinary process, which is not always disclosed to the match official.