How referee body language affects the perception of performance

How referee body language affects the perception of performance.

I recently watched the new documentary “The Referees” which follows a number of FIFA referees through the Euro 2008 finals. The film is a great record of the stresses and pressures put on the top officials in the modern game at the highest level. It also reveals some mighty large egos!

As a referee at a local level, I can identify with the challenges of getting it right in every game. The film gives some insights into what is in the minds of the officials at key moments in games as we can here their miked up conversations. Yet the top officials keep their doubts (for the most part) hidden. How do they do this? Through confident non-verbal communication.

In the Empire Magazine review of the film, the reviewer says the defining shot in the movie is “an Italian linesman practising his flag-waving in front of a dressing room mirror. Absolutely priceless.” The reviewer has got it completely wrong. The assistant referee is actually checking that his flag technique is clear, unambiguous and, most importantly, delivered with confidence. Every decision that assistant gives is going to be scrutinised. He has to convey that he is absolutely sure of the decision (even if some of the conversation we hear suggests he is not).

Check out this clip of research into what footballers want from a referee;


The research confirms that players want the referee to be;

  • competent
  • dependable
  • respectful

Notice how players decide on this based on a number of verbal and non-verbal (mostly visual) clues. This is consistent with the work of Albert Mehrabian, who showed that body language and tone of voice are the most important factors in someone hearing the right message and,crucially, believing, it.

So, how do we do this? Here are a few tips to help;

  1. Make strong eye contact when you are speaking to a player.
  2. Once you have made a decision, be quick and clear with your flag or hand signals.
  3. Talk to players as you expect them to talk to you – be firm but respectful. Never swear. Use your tone of voice to convey authority, not arrogance.
  4. Where you can, give players clarification on your decisions, but state this as fact from your point of view. Don’t allow your doubts to surface. Then move on, whatever you have decided it has gone.

Follow these few rules and we can all be perceived as more competent, dependable and respectful referees. Whether we are or not depends upon accurately knowing and applying the Laws of the game.

Refereeing, influential communication, and sins of the father

You may not know this, but I spend a part of my spare time as a football referee. Now, we are getting to the business part of the season where titles are won and promotion or relegation issues are decided. This can lead to a degree of tension in football matches, and the referee can easily be hated by both teams.

The aim of this post is not to issue a plea on behalf of referees, but rather to share some insights into influential communication that I have learned from recent matches.

Last weekend, I refereed 2 matches. On Saturday, the match was between 2 teams of Under 12 boys. It was a competitive affair, played in a good spirit, but not without its incidents. What impressed me was the calm way that the coaches and spectators (mostly parents) conducted themselves. There was very little, if any, negativity from the sidelines, and this was reflected in excellent behaviour from both teams. Even when a player got injured and crawled off the pitch, both coach and player accepted it as part of the game. It was clear to me that the players of both teams reflected the culture and approach of their coaches.

The following day, I refereed an open-age (adults to you and me) match. This time, one of the teams was quite relaxed and easy going. They were already relegated and accepted it for what it was. They contested some decisions, but always in a polite and respectful way. Some may say that this is why they ended up relegated, but that’s an argument for another day.

It soon became apparent that the other team took a different view, commenting or challenging every decision that I made as the referee. Eventually, I took the captain of this team to one side and warned him that I would have to caution someone for dissent if this behaviour did not stop. It didn’t, and so I ended up booking one of the team. This young lad had been offering me his opinion throughout the game and was the most frequent offender, so it was no surprise that he ended up in my book. I took his name and was about to restart the game, when another member of the same team stepped across the line and was cautioned. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this player not only had the same surname as the first offender, but was the father of the lad I had just booked!

So, 2 matches, 2 days, 2 contrasting atmospheres. What are we to conclude from these events?  Well, as children we learn how to behave from significant parental figures in our lives (Eric Berne, Transactional Analysis, TA). Mums, Dads, teachers and football coaches all contribute to ensure that we get the children we deserve; that is, reflections of ourselves, our values, and our behaviours. This is sometimes called sins of the father. So, keep this in mind when you are in any kind of man-management position. Treat others how you want to be treated, or live with the consequences.