Using Psychology In Soccer Officiating


By Don Dennison, NISOA National Clinician, Maryland

Psychology – “The science that deals with mental processes and behavior.”

I am sure that there was a time in the distant past when all that a referee needed was a solid knowledge of the rule book, a strong whistle and a good pair of legs.  Today’s collegiate referee needs something more; he needs to know what goes on in the players’ minds, he needs to have a knowledge of the tactics of the modern game, he must develop good technique in “people management” and he must know how to deal with what is called gamesmanship.  By having a basic knowledge of psychology as it pertains to the sport, the referee will be better able to deal with the players and coaches and to avoid unnecessary conflicts and confrontations.

Psychology in relation to soccer could easily be the subject of several volumes; this article will deal only with referee relationships with coaches and players and will give you some hints to assist you in people management.

RELATIONSHIP WITH COACHES: At the collegiate level, the salary and the tenure of the coach is often dependent on his/her winning record, so you can be assured that they will do all in their power to influence you if you allow them to do so.

Pregame: Be courteous and pleasant, but don’t overdue the pleasantries.  Never have too long of a discussion with one coach to the exclusion of the other one.  This doesn’t look right and creates an impression of favoritism.  When a coach tells you how glad he/she is to see you, because “most of the other referees during the season didn’t have any knowledge of the offside trap, which we use a lot”, the real intention is to gain your favor.  You might retort “What’s an offside trap?” in jest.

When you meet and greet the coaches, exude confidence and warmth.  First impressions are vital; be friendly but always business-like.

Physical Persona: Good eye contact is important; head up and look the coach in the eye; body posture should include shoulders back and head up, not slouched.  The tone and power of your voice convey a lot about you.  Not all of us are endowed with a radio announcer’s voice, but if possible try to lower your voice pitch and speak slowly, naturally and with authority.  The confidence of your walk creates a good impression if you keep your hands out of your pocket and don’t shuffle.  Of course when you meet the coach, don’t address him by his first name (address him as  “Coach”) and use a firm, but not overpowering handshake.

Always treat the coaches with respect and respond to reasonable inquiries when time permits.  Don’t get yourself involved in lengthy discussions, only answer reasonable questions.  Let your ARs handle coach dissent and any remarks that may be made about the officials if possible.  If they can’t handle this and need you to intercede, get your yellow (or red) card ready and use them.

RELATIONSHIP WITH PLAYERS: Every referee has his own personality.  Some can comfortably chat with players during the match, others should keep their mouths closed.  It is not improper to complement a player who makes a great shot or a goal keeper who  makes a spectacular save.  Everyone, including referees, enjoys a great play.

Control: “CONTROL” is the key word in player management. Don’t be hard-nosed, but let the players know exactly how much you are going to allow in the match.  Set the base line early on and then take appropriate action if the line is passed.

Players should never be threatened (“the next time that you do that, I’m going to show you a Yellow Card”).  Instead, tell the player as you run past him that you saw when he just did and to “knock it off”.  Those are some of the most effective words that you can use.  If the action is repeated, THEN use your cards.  Allow the players to make the decision to behave and stay in the match.

In the event that you have obviously missed a call and are reminded by a player that he was fouled, admit that you may have been looking elsewhere on the field but that you will keep an eye open for a recurrence.  Be HUMAN if you do make a mistake,  admit it and get on with the match.

Stay Calm: When everything else around you is in turmoil, make every effort to speak in a normal, not excited, tone of voice, do not get upset, maintain your composure and stay calm.  You have to be the calming influence on the field.

Showing Red and Yellow Cards: Try to move the offending player away from the crowd.  Have the player take a few steps with you and shoo the rest of the players away.  Don’t ever chase a player around the field, but meet him/her halfway.  Always be firm and do not allow other players to intercede.  Talk personally to the offender and make eye contact.  Tell her in a normal tone of voice what she has done wrong and that any further misconduct will lead to ejection.

Avoid intrusion into the player’s personal space (about 3 feet) and show the card above your own head, not her’s and then record it.  On awarding Red cards, no discussion is needed, just show the card, eject the player and record.  Get the match restarted quickly.  Once action begins, few players will stay around to argue about the call.  This is especially true on penalty kicks.  Note, however, that the Officials must first insure that the ejected player or coach must leave the field and here your Ars or Alternate Official can assist to speed up the process.

KEY STEPS TO PEOPLE MANAGEMENT: Basically, the official’s task is to control people.  To carry out this task efficiently, it is necessary to have some idea of the make-up and psychology of other people, to recognize types and to know what motivates them.  In any confrontation or discussion with either players or coaches:

Establish eye contact,

Identify the mood of the individual,

Establish rapport,

Convey your message calmly and plainly, and

Declare completion (get the game going).


You are the one who sets the limits – stay calm – respect players and coaches – be human and above all, maintain control.

Practice the 5 C’s: Care, Compassion, Consideration, Control and Confidence.

The referee needs to be aware of the varied personalities of the participants with which he will be faced during play.  He must recognize symptoms of psychological instability and he must put himself in position where he can exercise a calming or, if needed, a disciplinary influence. Self-confidence in your own abilities is the single most important attribute in applying psychological techniques to soccer officiating.