7 Characteristics of an Effective Referee: Do YOU have what it takes?

In recent blogs, I have shared observations about what makes some of us “more effective” referees than others… such as being “Ready for Anything” or not rushing a call by “Counting to One.” At the end of the day, wisdom and physical fitness are largely wasted if the referee isn’t effective in what he or she does on the field. In sharing my thoughts, I’ve tried (in my own small way) to impart an idea or two that aspiring officials might consider working into their own officiating routine.

No free advice today. And no one made the highlight reel, either.

Today, I would like to challenge every official to take timeout for some important introspection. Think about how you reached your current level of officiating… and if you aspire to reach even higher, what do you need to focus on to achieve further advancement?

John R. Wooden, arguably the most successful collegiate basketball coach of all time, introduced his “Pyramid of Success” to develop UCLA student-athletes. The “Wizard of Westwood” identified 15 key aspects, and then assembled them into a five-tiered pyramid, with the pinnacle being achievement of “Competitive Greatness.”

In discussing his Pyramid, Mr. Wooden described success as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

Now I haven’t studied Mr. Wooden’s entire course (nor have I shot hoops in more than a decade), but I believe that his definition of achieving success as an aspiring athlete can be applied to our cadre of 145,000 soccer officials here in the United States. Have we all made the effort to become the best official we are capable of becoming?

And so, I present for your consideration my own pyramid scheme (not to worry, this won’t cost you anything, and you don’t need to turnaround and sell it to friends, relatives and co-workers just to break even). Consider the following seven “C’s” as The Characteristics of an Effective Referee. And, whether you work games at the recreational level, competitive (travel) youth games, adult games at the amateur level, collegiate soccer, or some level of professional competition, I believe the seven characteristics remain valid and applicable to all officials.

1. COMPETENCE: For me, this is the “foundation” from which the other characteristics are built. There is absolutely no substitute for an official having a thorough understanding of the current Laws of the Game – for referees with five or more years’ experience, everything printed in the LOTG booklet should be second nature. OK, some rhetorical questions: What is your competency level? “Surprisingly better than the players” isn’t satisfactory. Do you study the Laws during the offseason? Can you succinctly describe the difference between Serious Foul Play and Violent Conduct? OK, how about between Failure to Respect the Required Distance and Delaying the Restart of Play? Do you ACTIVELY participate at clinics and training sessions (including those at which I am not the presenter)? Have you read U.S. Soccer’s most recent edition of Advice to Referees? How well do you really know what you claim to know about the application of the laws?

2. COMPASSION: OK, so now you’re a soccer referee. Congratulations for “being in charge.” We can’t all be Michael Kennedy, but we can aspire to show the level of compassion that he did for what, 35 years? Effective referees show their human side when cooling down an overly excited coach, and express empathy to an injured player and his upset mother. As the captain of the officiating team, how well do you motivate your assistant referees to help you – and the game – for a solid 90 minutes? Do you encourage them during your pre-game, engage them during stoppages in play, and then look to them for help and guidance when you (and the game) need it? I sure hope you don’t tune them out by starting your pre-game with “Don’t worry about fouls inside the penalty area. I’m fit, so I’ll have that covered.” As a professional AR, one thing I mastered was the ability to follow referee instructions… so, if that’s your instruction to me, my reaction is “good night, and good luck!”

3. CONFIDENCE: You are a well-balanced person who has learned a great deal about the Laws of the Game and how to best apply them. So, how do you carry yourself on the pitch? What does your body language convey? Effective referees make time to watch their movements in game video. If you’re like me, you’ll find it to be painful to watch, but it provides a unique learning opportunity about demonstrating confidence! Keep your shoulders back, chest out, and head up. Look like you are happy to be out there – and that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be. Smile when it’s appropriate. If it’s a challenging match at a level you aren’t accustomed to, let your confidence rise to the occasion… as Major League Soccer and FIFA International Referee Ricardo Salazar often reminds less experienced officials, “Don’t be scared!” Be ready to flash a player a scowl and the “knock it off” sign when it’s warranted… and be prepared to back it up!

4. COMMUNICATION: You’re looking good, confidently demonstrating your knowledge and interacting compassionately with the game. Next up is communication skills. Effective referees consistently exchange CLEAR information with other officials and the game at key moments, using crisp, clear APPROVED signals. When the heat is on, we expect the referee to be able to calmly explain a decision to an irate captain so that he can take a message back to his team. Sometimes, the game demands a quick verbal exchange with an AR, to identify the culprit, color of the card, and reason for the sanction (think Columbo’s “Just the facts…”). Many of you have probably noticed that game assessors evaluate how well officials make eye contact, as it reflects their ability to communicate. Here’s a suggestion – and you can apply it at every level of competition: Veteran MLS (and retired FIFA international referee) Kevin Stott reminds his teammates during every pre-game that he WILL make eye contact with them (to check pulses and take the temperature of the game) prior to EVERY goal kick. He does… it’s great stuff… and it works!

5. CONSISTENCY: As we grow with the game, we become more comfortable identifying foul play (challenges, tactical fouls, handling, DOGSO, misconduct), and as we accept more challenging assignments (moving from U12 to U14 to U16), we adapt and re-evaluate what constitutes foul play for the age of the players and/or the level of competition. That’s healthy and I encourage it! Also, on any given Sunday, we might whistle a much “tougher” game than last week, or a really straight forward one that largely manages itself. My point is simply this: Law 5 demands that referees apply the Laws of the Game consistently for the full 90+ minutes. Treat all players (from both sides) equally, from the opening kick-off to the final whistle. A foul that warrants a caution in the first half should also warrant a caution in the second. A tactical foul by the blue team is the same as a tactical foul by the white team. And most important: If you experience a “Moment of Truth” when you wish you could pull out an “orange card,” remember this… whenever you caution a player and show the yellow card, you are telling “the game” (the players, coaches and spectators) that in this particular game, EVERYONE can do this once… and remain in the game.

6. COURAGE: Only one official carries the whistle in our sport, and even when we have outstanding teamwork (eye contact, assistance with fouls and misconduct not observed by the referee, verbal reinforcement, etc.), there are times when the referee MUST make a decision that could affect the outcome of the game… again, the “Moment of Truth.” Handball in the Penalty Area. DOGSO. A clear Tactical Foul that demands issuance of a Second Caution. We can’t always be popular, and we should always leave our ego in the car or dressing room. Don’t want it to happen… but when it does happen, react with the heart of a lion. And after the game, when a player comes up to you, shakes your hand and says, “Ref, you and I were the only ones on the pitch who saw that…well done!” you’ll sleep soundly that night.

7. CONVICTION: If you have mastered the first six characteristics, then it’s time for your final test. To earn my “stamp of approval,” show me that you have what it takes to demonstrate conviction on the pitch for the full 90. There’s an old saying (old, because it was popular in 1990 when I was an up-and-coming State Referee): “Presence lends conviction.” I agree that “being there” when making the crucial call is a great first step – the game will be more accepting if you appear to be in ideal position. But it’s only the first step. When you have to show a red card or award that penalty kick, be prepared for the game to react… and the reaction may not be favorable since half of the game’s participants are going to be adversely affected by your decision. Keep your composure, avoid mass confrontation, and above all… stick to your guns (unless your AR is asking for a minute of your time)! Remember: YOU didn’t commit the foul or misconduct; the offending player did! So, as National Assessor Angelo Bratsis reminds us (and I will paraphrase the quote he shared with a room filled with wide-eyed State Referees some 20 years ago), “When a player tries to move the 16-ton weight over YOUR head, you slide it right back where it belongs… over HIS!”

One last thought on conviction: at the highest levels of competition, the Senior Assistant Referee and Fourth Official are literally bombarded with disinformation throughout the game… coaches, trainers and reserve players behind them trying to make their points and influence future decisions. You CANNOT let these participants get in your head… keep your concentration and maintain your level of conviction!

I’ll be the first to suggest that I am no John Wooden, just a happy Bruins fan.

And, while I can’t teach the Triangle Offense – much less the 15-point “Pyramid of Success” – I do think I’ve mastered the Pythagorean Theorem, for what it’s worth. My final rhetorical question to each of you: How well do you score yourself and your development along these seven criteria… are you on a solid path to reach your full potential? If so, great… keep up the great work and continue to challenge yourself. If you’ve identified areas for improvement, then dedicate the time and effort to elevate your game.

As for those who think I am completely off my rocker with this discussion today, you’ll be relieved to know that I am NOT a registered Assessor.

Categories: USSF

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