Learning from Watching

Dec 2012, Nuts and Bolts

Learning from Watching, December 2012

By Bob Sumpter, NISOA


We learn to improve our referee performance in a number of ways. These may include classroom and field training, periodic formal assessment, reading soccer literature that discusses various aspects of refereeing, discussions and exchanges of ideas at our various referee get-togethers, taking an active part in post-game Referee Team de-briefings, and by watching others referee as often as our time permits. These are all valid ways to improve, and all these methods work. This short article deals with watching others officiate soccer games.

Over the course of several weeks I was able to view a number of top-level European League games broadcast live on television. The officials assigned were either regular professional-level referees or top-level officials from the countries involved in league play. In general, their performances were at a very good level. What I viewed reinforced the notion that we could learn quite a bit about what to look for when judging fair and unfair play.

Who to Watch

Interestingly enough, while you can learn from watching the Referee Team during the games, you can also learn about officiating from observing the actions of the players being televised. This comes about because in top level games there are usually several cameras positioned around the field, and critical plays are often rerun showing different camera angles in both real time and slow-motion.

As an example: in one series of games in which a top-class team was involved, their star player was not only skillful at player skills, but was also very adept at faking injury, taking the occasional dive, faking being fouled, and constantly verbally and gesture-wise asking for fouls and misconduct cards against the opponents. Noting the actions in each of these incidents and using this information to judge the differences between fair and foul play helps increase the opportunity to learn more about recognizing unfair play.

The use of multiple cameras and replays of a number of incidents from different camera positions gives an opportunity to review in detail what the Referee should look for when deciding whether or not to penalize for possible violations.

Example 1: The Faked Foul

While watching replays of a number of incidents where a player was supposedly tripped by an opponent it became clear that there were a number of actions to look for in order to correctly decide whether and who to penalize. (a) The cameras clearly showed the bringing together of the feet before a fall. (b) The replays of excellent camera work also clearly showed the timing of a small leap to clear leg or foot contact, and clearly showed a player just being missed by the tackling opponent while planting his feet to prepare for a fall to look like a foul tackle. (c) And finally, once the feet were planted the bend forward to let momentum carry the player to the ground for a supposed foul tackle. After watching a number of these detailed replays, the observant referee could understand that whenever possible contact on a tackle against an opponent would involve at least three main clues to help judge a possible foul.

Example 2: How Much Backtalk?

Observing these games pointed out a continuing problem in competitive game management: the tendency of star players to constantly and consistently jabber at the referee when a foul was not awarded or a card was not administered emphasized.  This is a long standing problem in refereeing. Referees do need to be firmer on dissent than was the average response in the games seen. In game after game the viewer could see a constant repetition of comments aimed at the referee. The one technique that seemed to have a positive effect on game control was when the referee, after talking to players in the early stages, was the display of the “that’s enough” hand signal to the player involved. In many cases that seemed to work. The other clue to look for, as to when that gesture should be given, was not clearly indicated in the games seen. There is still a difference in technique and effectiveness among the referees observed.

Example 3: Hold/Push

When it comes to penalizing for what would normally be considered pushing and holding fouls, some of the games observed seemed to involve wrestling matches between players. The photography and the replays showed a fairly consistent leniency in allowing players to grasp opponents from behind with one or both arms to either throw the opponent off balance, or to actually stop the opponent from being able to move, or to hold the player from approaching the ball or area of active play. While incidents like this usually occur in the crowded goal area during corner kicks, in the games observed these incidences occurred frequently in all areas of the field with the apparent object only to gain possession of the ball.

Watching the games seemed to emphasize a need to establish some general guidelines for all referees. This seems to be a game control issue left entirely up to the individual referee to solve. One aspect of the problem is that a number of the incidents, if penalized, could well involve penalty kick awards, and that usually places self-imposed restraints on referee actions.

Example 4: Deliberate Hand Ball

One of the more positive observations during the games seen was the fairly consistent manner in which referees judged the deliberate hand ball. The guidelines became simple and apparent. So long as the player held his arms relatively straight and touching his sides, no deliberate contact with the ball was penalized. However, if one or both arms were bent outward or held straight out, and ball contact occurred, it was penalized whether inside or outside the penalty area. The consistency among the referees observed seemed to quiet most protests either for or against the call, with few exceptions. This seems an effective and successful guideline and should be considered at all levels of play.

Example 5: Jumping Contact

Opposing players who jump up in order to get to a ball being played on a volley into their area often make contact.  Often, the contact involves supposed holding, pushing, or striking, depending on how and where the contact takes place. The calls made in the games observed seemed to display a fair consistency in some of the judgments. So long as the arms of the player were stretched out straight, but not bent, contact would usually not be penalized. An arm, or arms, held out and bent when contacting the opponent usually resulted in a foul being called. In any maneuver where the arms were used atop an opponent’s shoulder(s) to spin the opponent off the ball or force the opponent ground-ward, the contact was also penalized.

Again, positive help for referee improvement can result from observing these games. The guidelines seemed simple, and were applied fairly consistently by the referees.

Example 6: Is 3 Yards Enough?

The handling of free kicks in the defenders’ half of the field turned out to be consistently handled by referees. Once a free kick was awarded near to the defenders’ penalty area, the referee would first see that the ball was set properly, then through word and gesture inform the kicker that his whistle would signal for the kick to be taken. During these seconds, it was fairly usual to see a defender take up a position about three yards from the ball to deliberately interfere with the kick from being taken (a clear violation, since the rules require a ten yard distance). No cautions were awarded against the encroaching defending player in the games observed. All the referees observed and ignored the encroaching defender at this point, and then proceeded to see that the defending wall was set up properly at a ten-yard distance. If by this time the lone defender who was blocking three yards from the kick had not moved to a proper distance, the referee would then handle that problem, and return to a position to oversee the kick.

It seemed clear that the guidelines followed included temporarily ignoring the defending player who blocked the kick from three yards away, in order for the referee to see that the kick was not taken until he had signaled and the wall was properly set. It seems obvious that the short delay in restarting play by following this procedure could be made up for when extra time was added at the end of that period. The procedure was successful in the games observed.

Correctly advising referees to require a whistle when a free kick is taken within the defenders’ half of the field makes sense. It seems that the ability to add time to end of period positively affects implementation. It is still the referee’s job to make sure that the ball is properly placed and the kick not taken until set.

Example 7: How Many Contact Fouls?

A very physical game seems allowed, perhaps for spectator excitement. However, no pattern of guidelines seemed apparent in judging when too many fouls are enough. Deciding which actions are to be penalized as foul or misconduct is still part of the art of refereeing. In the games observed, a number of players were cautioned for persistent infringement, but no consistency seemed apparent.

An overage of contact often incites players on both teams to further roughness. The successful referee in this game environment still seems to rely on an un-definable ability to know when to more severely deal with unacceptable conduct. That’s probably why we deal in guidelines instead of being able to successfully identify, and teach, every event of unacceptable behavior that requires behavior control of the participants.

Another observation about this game control factor is that many (but certainly not all) European teams in these games had a tendency to use a long pass tactic rather than shorter, controlled passes to retain possession and advance their attack. This resulted in more than average “50-50” possession opportunities, and also seemed to cause more than usual contact among competing players. This in turn seemed to result in more frequent cautions. A good technique seen was that many referees, when issuing a caution, reinforced by voice and gesture to the cautioned players the number of fouls that the referee had counted against the player being cautioned. This reinforces a common suggestion referees offer to each other about “learning to count” in order to control “persistently infringing” misconduct.


This brief discussion of how referees can learn to improve game performance by observing other referee colleagues is far from comprehensive.  However, it should help convince us that it is one worthwhile method of self-improvement. The experience of seeing how colleagues handle game incidents with the objective of trying some of the techniques observed should increase our individual abilities and help each of us get a step closer to the standard of personal excellence we have set.

NOTE: Games seen:

FA Premier League, FA Cup, EUFA Champions League, etc. Thanks is due the Fox Soccer Channel.