Referees, Confidence and Arrogance

Referees, Confidence and Arrogance

Referees, Confidence and Arrogance

To understand more about refereeing I decided to put my money where my mouth was and become a qualified official.  I enjoyed every minute of the training and meeting not only my fellow trainees but my assessors too.  Their experience was evident in every action they performed and every word they said.  I remember one piece of advice with great clarity: “Whether you are positively right or positively wrong, be positive.”  The importance of being positive and ‘selling a decision’ is undervalued by those outside refereeing circles.  The ability to demonstrate to the players, coaches and spectators that the officials, as a team, have come to the right decision has even caused the IFAB to review the use of VAR for the 2020/21 season; allowing referees to use the pitch side monitor even if a decision has been made to help convince players that the correct outcome has occurred.  It inspires trustworthiness, integrity and something that referees have always been aware of the importance of Confidence.

Let us be clear to begin with what we mean by confidence: it is not a trait.  We often believe that someone ‘either has it or they don’t’.  At face value, this is comforting for those who are seen to ‘have it’.  It suggests they are great leaders.  That they are made of a robust quality, unshakeable in all circumstances.   It’s an attractive proposition, but a flawed one.  We are all human beings.

We have situations that we feel competent in and some that we do not.  For instance, one may feel at ease playing a musical instrument in front of hundreds of people, but nervous driving a car or interviewing for a job.  Therefore, confidence is dynamic.  It fluctuates.  It’s presence and impact is dependent on different factors.  In fact, it is dependent on four factors.

Figure 1: Bandura’s (1977) model of self-efficacy

In 1977, renowned psychologist Albert Bandura posited that self-efficacy – our belief that we can succeed at a particular task – is influenced by four factors.  These are:

  • Previous experience: if we have succeeded at a particular task before, we are more likely to believe we will be successful in the future
  • Vicarious experience: if we see people that we believe to be comparable with (e.g., a peer or someone at the same perceived ‘level’ as us) succeed, it gives us confidence that we can succeed at the task as well
  • Emotional state: if we enter the task with the appropriate levels of arousal and feelings of security then we are more likely to believe we will succeed
  • Verbal persuasion: if we are encouraged, we are more likely to believe we will perform well than if we are discouraged

These factors seem obvious but they are so often overlooked.  When we consider the importance of confidence, it is imperative that referees both understand and address the issue of competence in their preparation.  So, how can this be applied?

First, a key point to acknowledge is that if our self-efficacy is caused by something, then we can develop it.  This is one of the reasons the ‘fast-track’ route to officiating endorsed by the FA has been critiqued by other European nations: how can an individual acquire the experiences necessary for top-flight football refereeing without frequently being exposed to the challenges involved?  Regardless of whether you agree with this stance or not, officials can develop their own levels of competence independently.  This is achieved by addressing each of the causes in turn and using practical application to practice.  As cognitive anxiety (feelings of doubt that manifest themselves psychologically rather than physically) tend to begin approximately a week before performance and peak from 24-hours to immediately before a fixture, I would urge every official to do the following in the build-up towards a fixture:

  1. Reflect on previous, successful performance. Officials don’t like surprises, so reflect on occasions that have happened in the past where you have handled the situation well.  What are you going to say to a player who argues every decision?  What will you do if a player uses abusive language within the first three minutes of the game?  What have you said to your assistants before that helped you work as a team?  Do you have ‘stock phrases’ that you might use for when certain situations occur?  Additionally, consider actions you have taken that have not worked out how you wanted them to.  Have you tried to calm a player down but done the opposite?  How would you handle that differently?  Don’t just think about them, write them down every time you have doubts about your performance.  You’ll realise that your experience is worth its weight in gold and that you are a lot more competent than you think.
  2. Watch others at your level. We all enjoy watching high quality football and many will also enjoy observing the performance of the officials.  However, also take time to watch those at your level.  When writing the book, Blowing the Whistle: The Psychology of Football Refereeing, one FA referee mentor and assessor told me that watching peers officiating is the most important thing a referee can do for their development.  What can you learn from them?  What did they do well?  What can you apply to your own performance?  What would you avoid doing?  In such a technologically advanced age, this is easier than ever to do.
  3. Record how you feel before performing. Too often, we leave our emotions to chance.  Athletes would never do this; they have pre-performance routines to help them attain a specific level of arousal before a game or event.  Officials need to do the same.  How do you feel before performing at your best?  How taxing do you like your physical warm up to be?  How relaxed do you like to feel?  What methods and techniques can you apply to manipulate these feelings?  There will be much, much more on this in the next few articles.
  4. Encourage yourself. This is where officiating is unique: there is rarely a section of supporters there for you.  It will often be the opposite; you will be treated with silence at best or disdain at worst.  This is where you have to be your own cheerleader.  Prepare stock ‘self-talk’ phrases to use during performance.  For instance, if you feel you are not keeping up with the play, urge yourself to.  You can say them out loud or in your head but repeat the message: ‘come on, keep up’.  When you make a good decision, acknowledge it: ‘that was the right decision’.  If there is a dispute over a sanction you have made, talk it over with yourself: ‘don’t worry, they couldn’t see what you saw’ or ‘they are just trying to influence you, keep’.

Applying these principles will develop confidence.  However, this confidence can often be misconstrued.  A question that I frequently get asked, is ‘why are referees so arrogant?’  So it seems that referees need to tread a fine line between having confidence in their decisions in order to sell a sanction to a hostile player or a partisan crowd and, at the same time, avoid the often used, rarely considered, accusation of arrogance.  Of course, whether a referee (or anyone) is arrogant or not is largely a matter of opinion.  But is such an opinion supported by evidence?  It is true that officials have a high opinion of their ability to referee a football match.  Only 2% of referees believe others at their level to be better than they are at specific skills needed to take control of a football match, with the remaining referees feeling they are better than or equal to others.  Is this arrogance?  Not really.  It is a claim with tremendous foundation.  Refereeing (and being an assistant) is a role specific skill.  It takes time, practice and experience to develop the necessary skills that are needed to officiate a football match.  This is supported in evidence.  Referees outperform players when judging fouls, 80% to 50% respectively.  Perhaps officiating is harder than it looks and referees have cause for holding such self-belief.  However, officials should also be aware that their assistants outperform them at judging offsides by a significant margin.  Consequently, being aware of one’s own strengths but also how others can help you achieve your goals is perhaps the best mix.  Consider how you can improve your feelings of confidence and how you can perform your role to the best of your ability.

Whether someone believes you are arrogant or not, however, is out of your control.  In the next article, we’ll look at how (and why) this shouldn’t bother you.

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: