Referee Nuts and Bolts – April 2009

By Bob Sumpter, NISOA


Welcome to the second volume of “NISOA Referee Nuts and Bolts.  This month, there are six short topics that should give you some helpful suggestions to think over and try out in your NISOA College and High School refereeing activities.

Remember, these short discussions are meant to help you add to the personal techniques that you can successfully use because the techniques adopted are best suited to your refereeing personality and needs.

This series is called “NISOA Referee Nuts and Bolts” because it tries to address each topic in a basic, practical, and common sense way so that you can absorb the information presented easily and put it into practice quickly.

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1. Why did that retaliation happen?

Let me set a game event in your mind’s eye.  A player with the ball runs down the field at a pretty good pace toward the opposing goal.  An opponent marking that attacking player comes up behind the player, flicks a foot in the direction of the ball, but instead of kicking the ball away, the opponent manages to flick the ankle of the attacking player.  It’s not much of a kick; you judge it to be too trifling to call and so you let it go.  At about the same time, the attacker who was kicked stops short, turns to the opponent, and violently pushes the opponent while also shouting profanity at him/her.

Does that sound like an event you have witnessed in a game, or perhaps have had happen in a game?  The retaliation seemed to come from “nowhere”, and the incident of the kick hitting the ankle not serious enough to cause the retaliation by the attacker on his opponent.  Now, you’ve got to blow the whistle and sort out a serious incident.  Could it have been avoided?

That depends on whether or not your decisions leading up to the retaliation were well thought out.  For example, was that the first time that opponent, or any other opponent of the attacking player, flicked at the ankle of an attacker?  If there were other flicks that made contact with an attacker, did you let these go without any action?  How many such flicks that made contact did you let go?

Also, did you keep a mental count of violations by any of the players?  If so, how many did you allow any given player to make before you did anything?  If you let more than one go without calling for whatever reason, did you speak to the player involved?  If you did keep a mental count, and did penalize players for more than one violation, did you verbally inform any given player that he/she had made (by your count) several violations and that he/she was approaching a possible misconduct action?

Retaliation sometimes occurs because the Referee does not keep aware of those players who have multiple violations and unfair contact against opponents.  This means that the Referee has to rethink how to judge and handle persistent infringement of the rules.

The Referee also has to rethink about when to verbally warn a player who is approaching possible misconduct.  Likewise, decide at what point in multiple violations to issue a Caution for persistently infringing the rules, or to issue an Ejection for persistent misconduct after being cautioned.

Tip: Retaliation is all too often the result of the inattentive Referee, as opposed to the Referee not seeing it coming.  You need to make and keep yourself aware of what’s happening to, and between, the players throughout the game.  Remember, not only the player who retaliates needs to be disciplined, but it is just as important to discipline the opponent who caused the retaliation.

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2. Learn to be decisive.

This is often mentioned as a key characteristic of the successful Referee. For the Referee it means making decisions quickly, yet fairly, while not showing any sign of doubt or hesitancy in making each decision.

Experience tells us that we have to make decisions about conduct that are not clearly defined in the rules.  Words in the rules such as deliberate, intentional, aggressive, violent, and serious, give a suggestion of what is required for a discretionary decision, but are often given widely varied applications by different Referees.  Also, these not-well-defined terms often lead some Referees to doubt whether some particular act should really be punished, and also cause some Referees to hesitate to impose a punishment called for in the rules.

Such indecision and hesitation is sensed by game participants, and leads to their losing reliance on the ability of the Referee to properly manage play.

It is better for a Referee to develop the habit of quick, firm, fair and consistent decisions when player conduct is involved in order to keep behavior under proper control.

One key guideline in adopting the habit of becoming decisive in a positive way and demonstrating that decisiveness is based on a subjective decision-making guideline. If done consistently it can make the difference if how your game management is perceived.

TIP:  When an act occurs that involves one of the violations or forms of misconduct, if your mental reaction is: “Wow, that is unfair!”, then go with that reaction and punish the violation or misconduct.  Make sure you use the same judgment guideline (i.e., “Wow, that is unfair!”) consistently for each act.

Tip: Do not second-guess your initial reaction. Go with the call as quickly as you can sound the whistle.  If you do so consistently, you will be perceived as fair, and your calls will be (and will appear to be) consistent and decisive, and will be accepted more readily by participants.

Tip: Decisive calls help set a firm standard of conduct for the game.

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3. How to recover your game concentration.

Refereeing a game competently requires your unbroken concentration throughout.

Have you ever refereed a game and at some point found that your concentration has wandered off and left you feeling that you are not paying as much attention to what is happening as you should.

It sometimes comes from a game you consider too quiet, dull, or uninteresting.  It may also come about because your mind is on other cares outside of refereeing that game.  Every once in a while problems or issues with job, family, or other concerns intrude into your attention, and (as some players and coaches might opine) “you’re missing a great game, Referee!”

Unfortunate? Yes it is, but it does happen at one time or another to many, many Referees.

As soon as you become aware that this is happening to you, take steps to correct and recover your entire attention on the game and your job of managing it.  There are a number of simple techniques to get your attention and focus back on track.

Tip: Start running faster and longer patterns.  For example, see if you can keep up even with the foremost attacker (while keeping out of the way of play!)

Tip: Once you’ve done it at one end of the field, sprint to the other end during a change in direction of play and try the same foot race with the foremost attacker at that end.

Tip: Widen your pattern at each end of the field to take you farther out so that you can then see more of the players from your side of the field while also being able to see your Assistant Referee across from you.

Tip: As you move up and down the field, look over at both Assistant Referees more often.  Also, turn your head while running your pattern to look behind you at play and players more often.

Tip: Pick players at different sides or ends of the field who you can try to head for and get as close to as a target for the end of a run just to see how near you can get before having to turn to another direction.  This will also have the benefit of players becoming aware that you intend to keep an eye on all areas of play and players.

Tip:  Make longer and wider runs. Communicate with your Assistant Referees more often than usual by eye contact and gesture to confirm that you have received their indications, or that you are paying attention to their positions during play.  Also, as the opportunity arises, check your watch time with theirs to see how close you three are on timing and backup.

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4. Game control at the more competitive levels.

One way to gauge whether or not you can handle the next level of competition is to assess the extent to which your actions and reactions on the field are instinctive, or still labored.

Do you find that you act more and more rapidly and effectively without seeming to have to think about what to do in most game situations?

The more you realize that your actions are instinctive, the more likely that you can, if the occasion arises, try your hand at the next “level” of competition.

As an example of what it means to act instinctively, in one highly competitive game, the Referee was having to control a serious misconduct, and ejected a player.  Several of the player’s teammates showed their disagreement by running over and surrounding the Referee while voicing their disagreement with his action.  While the Referee tried to deal with dissenters both in front of and in back of him, the Linesman ran onto the field to the Referee and took a position standing back to back with the Referee.  That allowed the Referee to deal with players he could see, and the Linesman to deal with the players at the Referee’s back.  The situation was handled quickly through this instinctive action of the Linesman.

No prior instructions were exchanged between Referee and Linesman about coming onto the field and standing back to back. This was not a prescribed game mechanic at the time, but the act worked and exhibited the level of competence reached by the Linesman.

In the self assessment of your level of ability, can you identify with the Linesman?  If you were that Linesman, would you have been apprehensive about running onto the field into a group of disgruntled players to assist the Referee.  Would you rather have felt that the disorder was strictly up to the Referee to handle and straighten out?  Do you fully accept your responsibility to help control a game if in an Assistant Referee position?

Tip: In gauging your level of competence you need to consider your success at acting in and reacting to serious game control situations. That is because at the more competitive levels of play where players and teams are under more stress to win, game control will become more demanding for the Referee. How you perform in game control will be one key indicator of your preparedness to move up.

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5. Space matters!

Soccer is a game of space.  Teams are always looking for the advantage of open (i.e., positive) space into which they can move, and from which they can successfully gain an advantage and attack the opposing goal.  Most team tactics are designed to get players into open space to increase the opportunities to win. When a Referee moves up and down the field with play, he or she looks for open spaces where play and challenges will often develop.

The Referee also needs to keep tabs on occupied or crowded (i.e., negative) space where opponents challenge each other, make physical contact each other (fairly and unfairly), and play to advance their attack into more advantageous open spaces.

Thinking about the kind of problems that occur in negative space usually helps the Referee anticipate game difficulty.  For example, in some venues the field dimensions are at the minimum allowed.  A field having a minimum width results in 22 players in the game being more crowded than needed during play.  That means more physical contact, fair and unfair, and more opportunity for frustration and retaliation because of aggressive contact or marking.

Also, a team whose usual tactic is close marking of opponents, may well cause more confrontations than usual.

Tip:  Stay aware of open (i.e., positive) space, and anticipate play moving in that direction. Open space is more likely to be where you next need to control behavior as players head there.

Tip:  Be aware of negative space as well.  If you know players are confining themselves to small areas, get closer and observe behavior more carefully to forestall problems.

Tip: Be aware of general team tactics.  If a team tactic is to mark opponents closely, be aware that you can anticipate more player confrontations that normal.  Stay as close as is sensible to opposing players who are in close, aggressive marking situations while you and your Referee Team adequately cover other play and players.  In this instance, you can get help from your Assistant Referees by pre-game instructions to assume responsibilities to oversee problem areas.

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6. Set the standard of conduct early.

Setting a definite standard of allowed participant conduct early in a game is important for your success.  You do that by disciplining every violation, misconduct, type of unfair play, and infringement of the rules as you observe them. You must do so consistently, while still implementing the Referee maxim that “trifling” violations or offenses need not always be punished, as unnecessary game stoppages could well ruin the enjoyment and integrity of the game.

When players see that you are consistent in your punishment of unfair play without being “picky”, they will be more likely to settle down and play the game more fairly, relying on your willingness and ability to control unfair and dangerous play fairly and objectively.

Also, assuming that your calls and actions are correct, as they should be, players will more readily understand and accept the standard of conduct your decisions set.

Tip: The key ideas here are the words “consistent” and “early.”  Players need to recognize early in the game the standard of conduct that you require and set.  The earlier and the more consistent your judgments and actions about unfair play are, the quicker and better able players will be to understand the standard of conduct you set for that game, and the quicker they will turn their attention to playing the game with fewer incidents of unfair play on their part.

Tip: Players will also more readily understand and accept that “trifling” incidents can be a normal part of the game without necessarily reaching the level of being bad enough to punish, and they will welcome the fewer stoppages that might take away from their enjoyment of the game.