Be a Successful Referee

By: Mario Donnangelo: NISOA Associate Director; NISOA National Clinician; former Chair, NFHS Soccer Rules Committee

Every Interscholastic Soccer Referee wants to be successful. Not all achieve the level of success at refereeing that they seek.  Some get to be very good at it.  Some get to be excellent at it. Others are never really able to achieve the level of excellence that they have set for themselves, and therefore do not achieve their full potential in refereeing.

One way to develop that full potential, and also reach the goals you set for yourself is to look at successful Soccer Referees and try to see what particular qualities, abilities, or characteristics seem to make them so successful at refereeing.

In this article I discuss a set of attributes of successful Interscholastic Soccer Referees.  By considering to adopt these attributes for yourself, and then developing and strengthening each, you can help yourself achieve your personal goals of success and excellence in refereeing.


Give the same maximum effort as players do.  You should be giving your maximum effort every time you referee a game, the same way players do in those games.  Refereeing is an intense, demanding activity, and you need to give it the effort it requires if you want to do a good job.


Adopt an attitude that keeps you in the right mood.  Also, prepare yourself adequately both mentally and physically for every refereeing assignment. Enter every game with the determination to concentrate on the refereeing task.


Your job as an Interscholastic Soccer Referee is to make the required calls, however uncomfortable and difficult they may seem at the time.  The integrity of the game and your application of both the letter and spirit of the rules depend on this realization.


Work at this as your top priority.  If a competitive sport is not properly refereed, it could well lead to unacceptable behavior on the part of the participants (e.g., confrontations, misconduct, arguments, fighting, or injury). One of your primary concerns should always be control of the contest.


You have often heard that your Referee uniform does not grant you immunity from taking a little criticism.  Realize that sometimes you will make a mistake. When that happens and criticism is leveled at you, take it in stride.  However, do not allow the occasional remark, justified or not, to become dissent with, or argument against, your subsequent decisions. Accept as a fact that some constructive criticism is part of the game.  However, this needs to occur at another time than during the actual game. Whether it is given as a assessment, or perhaps in a friendly conversation with another Referee, Coach, or School Administrator, such discussions after a game ends can be helpful if conducted with civility on both sides.

Competent Referees learn how much constructive criticism to take. A quick remark, in a civil manner, that is not argumentative, is acceptable. However, during a contest is not the time to either respond to such a remark or to discuss it.


Only use your authority to eject a person when it is warranted. The Referee in any high school soccer game has almost complete authority to control and punish misconduct.  That authority must be used wisely, and not be used to intimidate participants.

Stay away from coaches in a potentially volatile situation.  Unless you decide to approach a coach to issue some form of punishment, it is not a useful act to approach a coach to argue your decision that the coach objects to. Rather, keep the contest moving along. When you do so, most participants will quickly forget the situation and concentrate on the game.

Don’t bait coaches. That’s not the proper application of your authority or of game control techniques. The relationship between Coach and Referee in a contest should be one of mutual respect and acceptance of their respective roles.


Each game is different.  Approach each game without preconceptions. The courses of most competitive games are not necessarily predictable in terms of participant behavior or game results. One approach is to note the reactions of players.  Observe how they react to your refereeing manner from the beginning of the game on, and consider adjusting your control techniques to the participants of that particular game.

Take note if the tempo of the game changes. Learn that a change in tempo is usually a sign for the Referee to be more observant for behavior changes among the players.

A ragged game differs from a smooth game. Each has its refereeing challenges. However, ragged games (because they are more frustrating to the participants in terms of not achieving their expectations) have more potential for team, player, and coach misconduct.


Of course, it is best to use a firm and relaxed voice when communicating with players and coaches. Remember that everyone wants to be addressed in a civil manner.  You can get your information across just as effectively in a calm, firm manner. And, in doing so, there will be less chance of a negative reaction to your tone or manner.

Referees don’t like Coaches or players barking at them.  Shouting usually indicates the loss of personal control by the user. It suggests that you are losing your ability to remain calm and in control of the contest.  Further, it may actually result in your making incorrect decisions.


Cockiness has no place in refereeing. There is an obvious difference between confidence and cockiness. Confidence can be exhibited by the calm, firm, and knowledgeable way in which you apply the rules of the game throughout. A swagger, or a demeaning tone of voice, or a sarcastic remark usually evokes a negative reaction from participants.

You should exude a confident manner and sound confident when communicating at all times. That confidence should be based on your thorough understanding of your duties and responsibilities to apply the soccer rules in both letter and spirit. That confidence should also be exemplified by your firm, fair, civil, and respectful approach to, and treatment of, all game participants in all situations and encounters.

Your presence should command respect.  Your manner will do a lot to establish your credibility in any contentious situation.  Your appearance, voice and manner help you become correctly accepted as the game conduct authority.

Again, you must show that you are in control by your manner, your approach, and your firm, objective, and impartial application of the rules.


Fans who attend games often (but not always) exhibit three characteristics: ignorance of the rules, emotional partisanship, and antagonizing the Referees.

Only be concerned about fans if they interfere with the game.  Any negative interference in the course of a game should be remedied immediately. The expected cheers, boos, and catcalls should be ignored as part of the game. It helps not to have “Rabbit Ears.” Taking personally any critical remarks from the spectators is an exercise in futility. As long as the conduct and the remarks of the fans do not negatively interfere with the conduct of the game, they should be ignored.


When you decide to do so, treat all participants in a courteous manner. Show, and require, the same respect when talking to any participant. If a question is asked in a courteous manner, you can answer briefly and civilly if you think the question appropriate. Sometimes it is necessary. At times a brief reply to a question can help avoid a later unpleasant exchange with a participant.

Of course, you should avoid loud and/or long discussions. First, avoid inappropriate discussions. Next, when talking to a participant about any issue, remember that if you speak in a loud voice it may be construed that you are becoming unsure of yourself and losing control of your own behavior, and perhaps losing control of the game.

In any case don’t bother to discuss your judgment calls.  Different people may well judge the same occurrence in a game differently.  Discussing your judgment calls more often than not leads to negative exchanges. Remember, it is ONLY your judgment as the game Referee that counts.  Act accordingly.


This is especially important when talking to players and coaches about behavior matters. Don’t threaten or intimidate participants. Your duties do not include such acts.  Instead, offer any comments you give as helpful and sincere counsel or advice. If a participant must be dealt with because of a serious situation, do so.  Do not avoid doing so. Most participants know the consequences of their misconduct. You need not necessarily explain the potential to them unless you believe them so uninformed as to require it.

When communicating with participants definitely do not keep saying that you will take a particular disciplinary action and then not do so. That kind of inaction will certainly cause you to lose credibility as an effective Referee very quickly. All participants recognize a refereeing weakness very quickly, and transmit that weakness to other teammates quickly. At that point, some of them may well attempt even more serious misconduct in order to test your limits.


One of you tasks is to help establish a calm environment for the game. You can do this by keeping your own emotions and behavior under control. You set the standard of allowed conduct in the game. Part of setting that standard is through the example of your own behavior. If you remain calm throughout, then that behavior will help positively influence the behavior of participants. It helps to avoid situations that may display your emotions. For example, try to avoid direct confrontations. Not all Referees learn to handle confrontations successfully. Handling confrontations with game participants is a skill that can be learned. Get advice from your Local Chapter Referee Instructors, Assessors, Mentors, or from other respected Referees.

It is fine for you to feel excited about the game. Part of your enjoyment in refereeing should be to feel exhilarated when a well executed play, skill, or team tactic occurs. Obviously, avoid showing your enthusiasm in a way that can be misconstrued as favoring a particular school. You should always appear, and be, impartial.


I have covered a number of attributes that I believe are essential for your success as an Interscholastic Soccer Referee: (1) be competitive, (2) prepare for every game, (3) make the calls, (4) keep the game under control, (5) have your head on right, (6) don’t be a tough individual, (7) get into the flow of the game and the play, (8) don’t bark at participants, (9) show confidence, (1) forget the fans, (11) it is OK to answer questions, (12) choose your words carefully, and (13) stay calm, cool, and collected.

If, in your Interscholastic Soccer Referee activities, you can master these personal behaviors, you should more easily achieve the level of successful refereeing on which you have set your personal sights.