Eight Steps to Player Management

By: Rodney Kenney, National NISOA assessor

In the beginning, refereeing is about knowing the rules, proper field mechanics, and controlling the match by the book. That might be all you need to know to be an adequate referee. But for those who want to move to the next level in refereeing, your people management skills will play a major role in your success.

For those who aren’t natural leaders the step up is a little more difficult, but not impossible. If you keep an open mind and are willing to apply these eight steps for better player management, you can develop the leadership qualities you will need to be a successful referee at the higher levels.

Step one: Appear confident in whatever decisions you make. The perception the players have of you as a competent referee starts with the way you’re dressed and how you carry yourself – your body language. You must remain calm no matter how nervous you feel or what is happening in the game. You must be like the duck that is swimming upstream from a waterfall, appearing calm above the water but paddling like crazy under the water. “Never let them see you sweat”; your confidence shows in your ability to control your emotions while under stress. Many referees take an arrogant attitude to mask their lack of confidence, which they think puts them in control. Be careful; players can tell the difference between arrogance and confidence. Players will always try to prove that an arrogant referee is not as good as he thinks he is.

Step two: Be a good listener. By this, I don’t mean listen for things that offend you. On the contrary, try to block out offending comments and listen to what players are saying to you about the game as well as what they are saying to each other. Most referees shut out players’ conversations as griping at each other or whining about the refereeing. Sometimes they are conveying information that can help you control the game. The “mind game” at the upper levels can sometimes lead to more problems for the referee then the physical game. The vehicle used to work the “mind game” is talk. If you aren’t tuned in, you’ll miss the early warning signs often ending with a physical confrontation between players and leaving you wondering what happened.  Zidane’s head butting incident in the 2006 world cup final is a great example of this.

Step three: Be a good communicator. Communicate with the players; let them know how you feel about their actions and what you are seeing. Let them know what the consequences of their actions will be. Remind them where they are in the game, such as, why are they committing needless fouls in the last 2 minutes of a game when they are up 4-0, or don’t they realize they already have a caution in the game. When you see a player becoming frustrated, communicate with that player in a positive way to keep him in the game. Never use foul or abusive language while addressing a player. How can you expect to deal with inappropriate language from players if you use it?  The following terms should be avoided: “son,” “boy,” “sweetheart” (girls’ game), and players’ first names. Remember that in communication it is not so much what you say but how and when you say it. Also know that your whistle can be one of your most valuable communication tools. Volume and duration will communicate what you think of the player’s actions, sometimes even better then words.

Step four: Be aware of the key players. Don’t let those key players be unduly intimidated. You must recognize when a single player is being continually fouled. At the higher levels, players will “line-up” to foul a key player in order not to make it seem like persistent infringement by one player. This type of persistent infringement is more difficult to identify than one player doing all the fouling. If you allow this to go on, one of three things will happen:

  • The player will be fouled until he/she is too hurt to go on and has to be substituted (like what the Nigerians did to Mia Hamm in the ‘99 Women’s World Cup).
  • The player will take things into his own hands (as Diego Maradona did in the ‘90 World Cup) and get himself/herself sent off for retaliation.
  • The player will just quit being effective and will be substituted.

All of these actions are very effective in eliminating a team’s best players. As you can see by the examples, it can happen even when you have the best referees in the world doing the game.

Step five: Learn how to read players’ reactions. This is a critical skill to learn in order to manage players. Following are a few examples:

  1. When a defender makes a hard, fair tackle and takes the ball away from an attacker, the attacker will get up with more determination than is normal and go after the defender who has taken the ball. You know that the subsequent tackle will not be as fair as the first one, and you need to be there when it happens to deal with the situation. If you read it in time, you could even prevent a foul by being close enough to tell the attacker not to foul the defender.
  1. Another example to consider is when a tackle looks bad, yet the tackled player shows no adverse reaction to it. That will help you decide what disciplinary action is necessary and may keep you from overreacting.

Have you ever seen a player swing at another and when you blow your whistle the player who was swung at runs away? It is likely that he was the one who started it, just by his reaction, so maybe two cautions are needed instead of one red card.

Step six: Know all you can about the two teams and the game you are about to referee. You need to know who the skilled players are, who are the enforcers, and learn as much about the players’ personalities as possible, know the teams’ styles of play, and what this game means to each team. How can you get this information?

Watch the teams play; talk to referees who have refereed the teams before; review players’ statistics. Is the game a regular season, tournament, or playoff game? What was the outcome of previous meetings between the two teams? Review the teams’ standings in the competition they are playing in. In college this can be done by going to the conference web site and looking up each team. This will give you, up-front, what the intensity level of the game might be and how the players may react during the game. The more you know before the game, the more able you will be to be proactive instead of reactive.

Step seven: Have an effective pre-game. The pre-game can be one of your most important management tools. During the pre-game, review with your assistants and fourth official what you expect from them in player management situations. Player management situations are substitutions, injuries, altercations on the field, problems with coaches and spectators, incidents behind your back, mistakenly giving a second caution without sending off the player, and bench management, just to name a few. The more prepared the referee team is to deal with player management problems, the more successful the referee team will be in any game.

Step eight: Get something for your discipline. Discipline in this case is defined as a warning, caution, or ejection. You need to understand that discipline is not a remedy for what has already happened but a deterrent for future undesirable actions. You must be willing to set the standards early in the match. This is often called “the moment of truth.” How you handle the first major incident puts the players on notice about what you will and will not accept. Be animated. A weakly displayed caution or a verbal warning without some intensity sends a message to the players you did not think their actions were that serious. Be careful to apply only the amount of discipline that is necessary to get the players to modify their disruptive actions. Over-disciplining can sometimes be more destructive to a game than the lack of discipline. Hopefully, your actions at this point in the game will prevent the need for further discipline. If you do have to use the ultimate discipline (ejection), you should always ask yourself after a game, “What could I have done to have managed the situation better?” Likely, you will find that if you had applied the eight steps, the red card may not have been necessary.

These eight steps are far from all the player management techniques that exist, but I think these will get you thinking about how important player management is to being a successful high-level referee.