January 19, 2014

Why Effective Communication Is The Key To Being A Successful Football Referee

The following text is a guest post written by Paul Spacey, former player, current referee and private coach as well as owner of a very insightful website you should definitely visit. As The Third Team is about to put more stress on psychology and prospering personality standards in modern football refereeing in future, this is an optimum start to approach this issue. 
It's not about what you say, but how you say it © mundodeportivo

As referees, we have a tough ride in general; particularly those operating at the top level with English Premier League officials being perhaps the most ‘scrutinised’ of all. Some parts of the tough ride we bring upon ourselves, it has to be said. The most impressive (and most successful) referees are those who are able to communicate efficiently and effectively with players, without taking on an air of superiority.

How do I know? What makes me qualified to say that?

I am an ex-player with 15 years in the game and I have been a referee for the past 4 years, both in the UK and US.
I came across thousands of referees whilst playing and have since worked alongside many more and there is no question, in my opinion, that the number one trait that sets the exceptional referees apart from everyone else is their ability to relate to and communicate with players.
It is worth remembering that the majority of your job as a referee is about man-management, of which communication is a vital factor.

Two-Way Process
Remember that communication is a two-way process. Sending and receiving information is a very important aspect of all competitive sports, none more so than football and effective use of this process will make things much easier for you as a referee. Ensure you are not just a sender.

Every time you turn up to officiate, regardless of whether it is a kids game or professional match with thousands of people watching, always arrive with a smile on your face. I do this, every single time I officiate and that is largely because I genuinely enjoy being a referee. So should you; if not, you should probably consider hanging up your whistle.
Being happy, positive and smiling is actually a choice anyone can make. Make the right choice.

Establish A Rapport
Try to establish a rapport with captains and players whenever the chance arises. You don’t need to be a comedian but if there is something witty or funny you can think of to say, even if the atmosphere is tense, go ahead and say it. It might just raise a smile and relax everyone.
You don’t need to walk around giving high fives to players but if you can come across as a genuine human being, as opposed to a robot following strict protocol, players will be more inclined to cut you some slack, even if you make a poor decision.

Lose Your Ego
The game is not about you; it is about the players. I attended a referees’ training course once where the instructor (a respected ex-FIFA referee) opened with the words, “When you step onto that field, you are God.” 
Remember that you are dealing with players, equals, not servants. Treat them that way and you’ll likely get a positive response. Leave your ego in the changing room!

Admit Your Mistakes (Sometimes)
Here’s a secret; players recognise that we are human beings and therefore they know we are going to make mistakes. Don’t go blubbering an apology every time you get something wrong; you don’t want to come across as weak.
However, if you make a decision and play restarts then you realise it was the wrong decision, don’t be afraid to have a quick word in the players’ ear next time they run past. Something along the lines of, “Sorry number eight, that was probably a foul, I missed it as I was unsighted.”
Being told we are/were right is something we all appreciate. Even though you can’t turn back time, players will appreciate your honesty and the justification that they were right.

Just theory? No. Check the following video at 3:20!

Explain When Possible
Instead of simply saying “go away” the next time a player questions a foul, if the speed of the game and situation allows it, give a quick explanation along the lines of, “Yes you won the ball number four but you went through the back of his leg first.”
This kind of thing goes a long way with players and if you say it with confidence and a smile, 99% of players will nod in agreement and just get on with the game. I don’t believe you can ever have the problem of talking too much when officiating matches. Sure, don’t attempt to strike up conversation during games about something unrelated to the match itself; players are not there to have a chat and cup of tea. However, talking a lot is much better than not talking enough.

Be Approachable
Being approachable is a great trait for referees to have. I am always approachable on the field and make a point of being so. This does not mean you have to act like a counsellor and sit down to discuss every single decision in detail. It does mean that you should allow players to talk to you and approach you (providing they do not do so aggressively) without waving them away like little children. Be accessible and receptive to players as much as possible without allowing the flow of the game to be disrupted by a barrage of comments.

Communicate With Players ‘On Their Level’
You don’t need to be dictatorial or condescending, otherwise you will not get respect from players. No player wants to be spoken to like a child and there is absolutely no need for you to use that kind of approach or tone.
We, as referees, are not on the field to be anyone’s best friend or win popularity contests; however, it is worth remembering that we are not there to make enemies either so I don’t see any reason why you can’t have the odd joke with players and talk to them as equals as opposed to lecturing them.

Body Language 
Body language is the silent communication tool but is extremely important. Studies have suggested that we communicate roughly 55% through body language, 38% through the tone of our voice and 7% through what we actually say. Good communication skills (including the effective use of body language) influence player perceptions of fairness and correctness, there is no doubt about that. 
With this in mind, it is vital that you work on your body language and tone, as well as what you actually say. 

You Don’t Have To Be A Hate Figure
I believe that you can be a successful referee and still be a well liked member of the sporting community. You don’t have to be the stereotypical hate figure that most people perceive referees to be. “Don’t be a referee unless you are comfortable being disliked by everyone,” I was told by many people. I have not found this to be the case at all and neither should you. Memorising the Laws Of The Game is not really that hard. Communicating effectively is more difficult. Focus your time on perfecting the latter.

Try to implement some of the concepts above during your next game. Watch and listen to player reactions. You can judge whether implementation of the concepts makes things easier for you or not. I already know the answer.

Paul Spacey is an ex soccer player, now USSF and FA qualified referee as well as being a private coach and author. His eBooks (including ‘Effective Communication For Referees’) are free to download on his website www.paulspacey.com.


  1. Impressive piece by someone who clearly knows what he's talking about. In my experience, I can only underline the lessons Mr. Spacey talks about with regard to communication. I would like to add one aspect to this excellent analysis: be yourself. Of course young referees model themselves on others they admire and there is nothing wrong with looking up to referees who have achieved a lot, but it is very important to remain close to yourself at all times on the pitch. Players will see through an 'act' and will lose respect if they notice it. Also, when the referee is required to react swiftly to a developing situation he first has to stop and think: "what would my role model have done?" Of course, the referee has lost crucial time to control the situation by now. Remember, styles differ and rightly so. In life and on the pitch you will not succeed by imitating others.

    Spacey's piece rings true especially for international refereeing, where all referees are expected to know the Laws of the Game inside out (yes Irmatov and Al Ghamdi, I'm looking at you), so that the communication aspect is an important indicator of a referee's ascendancy from a good referee, to a very good one. See for example the development of referees like Kuipers and Eriksson in the last two years.
    Talking about international level, body language is even more important there, as most referees (and players!) are communicating in their secondary or even tertiary language.

  2. Off Topic:

    Rest In Peace Thomas Onyango 1971-2014
    Kenyan FIFA referee Thomas Onyango has died from malaria this morning after being taken ill on Friday. He had been a FIFA-listed official for seven years and refereed in the Kenyan Premier League, where he had played himself in the early 2000s with Red Berets FC. The primary school teacher was the referee for South Sudan's first ever match, against Uganda on 10 July 2012. Thoughts and condolences are with his friends and family.

  3. Anonymous19/1/14 17:41

    Chelsea-M.U.: min. 37 clair penalty of Azpilicueta.
    But all referees are with Mourinfo.........

    1. I agree - Mr Dowd it seems has missed a penalty.

    2. Anonymous19/1/14 18:11

      Mourinho one man lucky with referees.

    3. Really poor afternoon for Mr Dowd. Missed penalty for United. Then he sent off Vidic for reasons I don't know. Finally, he should have sent off Rafael in the dying seconds.

    4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGQbRBNvtZw
      I agree with Nur here. This is not a straight red card in my opinion.

    5. Anonymous19/1/14 19:53

      Jonas Eriksson was a guest in Swedish tv today, and he supported Dowd's red card. But I can see the argument for a yellow card for Vidic too, of course.

      /Swedish observer

    6. Very interesting info. I already saw a video on youtube with Eriksson commenting a match and the decisions taken.
      Are Swedish referees always allowed to talk in public?

    7. Anonymous19/1/14 20:37

      Yes, that makes the public understand more. And it then is beneficial for the refereeing, I think. The other so-called expert in the studio was an old ex manager. Back in the days he liked referee bashing. But he has changed now, when he has realizes how the referees' situation and perspective is.

      Swedish referees are however not allowed to talk about their FIFA/UEFA matches, which is a pity but I guess international policy.

      /Swedish observer

    8. I agree with the red card. It was some kind of violent conduct (not serious foul play). Vidić wasn't interested in playing the ball, so it's a good call to me.

    9. To be honest I have given it up to watch English football or more specifically refereeing. It is very disgusting to see a man acting on the pitch who is not fit enough and maybe has some kilos too much to follow attacks properly in the last stages of a football match on this level. Dowd is creating mistakes in big clashes for many years and still gets the trust. I don't want to appear biased against English refereeing (hell I love Webb's management skills and charisma, not to forget guys like Clattenburg, Oliver and so on). But with Dowd's fitness you would not get a referee license on German amateur level.
      About the decisions, I can somehow understand the missed tackle in the penalty area. It was a very surreal situation and the attacker could have also fallen by slipping while making this shot on goal...maybe difficult to see from his position. I agree with the red card. SFP. The tackle was mere frustration and some kind of scissors tackle from behind. Vidic has little arguments to protest against this call. And personally I also like it that referees speak publicly to the media. It helps referees and fans understand each other better. On the other hand, I find it hard to recognize that a current UEFA Elite referee makes comments about other referees in European leagues. Actually he can only praise every decision. If he criticized it, he could get into trouble. It's a golden rule to not talk about colleagues...at least in Germany.

    10. Mr Dowd did lose a lot of weight over the summer. However, it seems he is re-gaining it. Check out this article:


    11. http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/08/02/article-2383646-16A87E70000005DC-343_634x1015.jpg

      This pic is really impressive, even though in my opinion a referee can be even fat, the only important thing is to take correct decisions when required.

  4. UEFA Seminar for Assistant Referees.

    Lisbon, 13-16 March 2013.

    2 Greek Assistants participating.

    Christos Akrivos and Damianos Efthimiadis.

    1. Cypriot Assistants

      Michael Soteriou, Stelios Nikita.

      102 FIFA Assistants are participating.

    2. Anonymous22/1/14 17:12

      Is it a separate seminar for ARs or is it in conjuction with the annual UEFA seminar for Elite referees?

    3. Hi Edward, do you mean February? It would be more logical than March.
      13 - 16 March would be in the middle of KO stage, if they want to test and give instructions to all the assistant referees, they should do that earlier.

    4. Chefren the seminar is definitely at March.

      See this: http://www.cfa.com.cy/Gr/news/17079/9

      UEFA has invited 102 AR's from all Europe and has divided them in 3 groups. Each group has a 3 day seminar (10 days in total).

  5. Some interesting situations from Norway - Poland friendly match refereed by Rami Al-Kaabi (Bahrain):

    Yellow card to Rafael issued by Mr. Dowd:

    Nice phase of Atletico - Sevilla match handled by new FIFA referee, Alejandro José Hernández Hernández:

    1. I watched the videos about Norway - Poland. The mark seems justified.
      At first I thought that the referee was trying to have a "friendly" tactical approach, missing clear YCs. But then watching the last scenes I changed idea, his card management was absolutely not good. I anyway must admit that the violent conduct at 43' was almost impossible to detect, but the big mistake is the RC given at 63', if you ask me, wrong. It could be given according to an extremly harsh style, but then how to explain the YC for the situation happened at 82'? Absolutely not consistent. I see the tackle at 82' as a SFP because really dangerous for the opponent.
      I expect more from AFC officials.


Copyright © . The 3rd Team
Theme Template by BTDesigner · Powered by Blogger