Being Assertive Out In The Middle

Being Assertive Out In The Middle

As referees, one of the biggest challenges we face is maintaining a good level of match control, one of the ways we may achieve this is by being assertive. Being assertive is a tool we may use when we need to raise our profile in a game which is beginning to present many challenges. So, let’s explore more about being assertive and assertiveness:

What Is Assertiveness?

There is a lot of ambiguity around what defines assertive behavior. The reason for this is that there’s a fine line between assertiveness and aggression, and they’re often confused. Let’s define the two behaviours so that we can clearly distinguish them:

  • Assertiveness is based on balance. It requires being forthright about what you want to happen and how you want it to be done, while still considering the feelings and opinions of others. When you’re assertive, you are self assured and take authority from this to get your point across firmly and fairly.
  • Aggressive behaviour is based on disregard for anyone or anything. You do what is in your own interests without thought for the opinions of others, including those who’re there to assist you. When you’re aggressive, the power you use is selfish. You may even come across as a bully. You do what you want, often leaving your colleagues behind.

When officials take charge of a game it is crucial that they don’t cross the line between assertion and aggression. Doing so could lead to a loss of match control due to players feeling that you’re unapproachable and as such turning against you. One of the key principles of refereeing is integrity and respect and being aggressive certainly damages your integrity and you will not be shown respect as you are not displaying any yourself.

Benefits of Being Assertive on The Field

A key benefit of being assertive is that such a skill can increase your self-confidence as a referee and you’ll gain a better understanding of your strengths and your brand of officiating.

Assertiveness provides a number of other benefits that can help you both on the field and in other areas of your life. the majority of assertive referees:

  • Make great game managers. They ensure The Laws of The Game are upheld by treating players and club officials with fairness and respect, and hope that, as a result of this, that treatment will be reciprocated. Those who master this are often the more well-liked officials and can be more warmly welcomed at clubs in the leagues they officiate on.
  • Mediate well, so that decisions are accepted. They can read the game and understand the importance of moments within the game to either team, this allows the referee to sell decisions based upon the state of the game.
  • Are good problem solvers. They feel driven to do whatever it takes to find the best solution which will allow the game to flow and play out to its full potential.
  • Experience less anxiety and stress. They are self-confident and don’t feel threatened or fear making a key error.

Risks of Being Assertive on The Field

Some clubs prefer referees to be passive as they feel that they can then manipulate them during games. Studies have shown that gender can have a bearing on how assertiveness is received, with officials being assertive in men’s games more likely to be rewarded with greater match control for being assertive than in a female fixture.

So, it’s worthwhile considering the type of fixture you’re going to be taking charge of before you start thinking about how you might alter your style.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should simply fall back into your usual habits. Rather, be open to trying new things, without being naive. Initially, alter your style incrementally, until you find what works for your style of officiating and what the game commands.

How to Become More Assertive

Altering your mannerism to become more assertive isn’t always easy, but it is possible. So, if you are predisposed to be more passive on the pitch than assertive, then it’s a good idea to consider these factors in a bid to get the balance right:

I believe that there are six main steps which can guide you in improving your assertiveness when you’re officiating:

  1. Know the facts of the situation from what you’ve seen or try to establish facts from players or your teammates to build the best picture possible of the incident. You automatically put yourself in a position of strength when you are in complete control of a situation rather than having half the story and having to guess the rest. Whilst many officials cope in this situation, on occasion we can be over-officious as we try to compensate for our lack of knowledge of an incident.
  2. Try to anticipate the behaviour of players or club officials you may come into contact with and prepare your responses. Envisioning a situation, mentally rehearsing the scenario, such as awarding a penalty kick at a key juncture of a game, and how you would deal with that person is a strategy employed by the most successful referees.
  3. Be calm and use open questions in a discussion. Open questions tend to start with who, why, what, when, where and how and are likely to extract a response that includes some useful information. Asserting your authority means using your questioning and listening skills effectively, not, for example, simply stating a point of Law in a domineering manner.
  4. Consider your responses to aggression. There are many resources you can access with materials referring to positive attributes, you can use these as a way of bolstering the way you view yourself as a person in control, confident and emphasising a positive posture which you need when your decision making and integrity is in question.
  5. Believe that your officiating ability and style will work for you. Assertive behaviour is not the behavioural type that many of us display when we are not refereeing as we are affected by the environment we operate in. The old adage is that ‘practice makes perfect’; in fact what practice does is to programme your brain to believe that the result achieved, such as successfully delivering a game, will be achieved again the next time you cross the white line. In other words, if you practice something and it brings you greater match control then you can believe that you will get the same results in your next game through employing the same techniques.
  6. Be sympathetic to players or club officials who may seek to bully you and those who take an extremely aggressive stance in any exchange of views. Bullies need not be feared; they have personal inadequacies, such as a lack of playing ability and their intimidatory tactics are designed to deflect such facts.


In the heat of the game it can often be hard to know how to put your feelings thoughts on an incident across clearly and confidently to someone when you need to assert yourself. The scripting technique can help you with this. It allows you to prepare what you want to say in advance, using a four-stage approach that describes:

  1. The incident. Tell the people involved exactly how you see the situation.
  2. Your feeling. Describe how you felt about the incident and how that influenced your thought processes when taking action (or no action as the case may be).
  3. What you need. Tell the people exactly what information you need from what you’ve seen or from your colleagues in order to come to a decision.
  4. The outcomes. Describe the positive impact that this will have for the delivery of the game if your needs are met successfully.


Being assertive means finding the right balance between passivity (not assertive enough) and aggression (angry or hostile behavior). It means having a strong sense of yourself and your value to the game, and acknowledging that you deserve to get what you need to make the best decisions. It also means standing up for yourself even in the most difficult situations you may find yourself in within a game.

What being assertive doesn’t mean is acting without considering other people’s views, opinions and knowledge – that is aggression.

You can learn to add assertion to your game over time by identifying what you need to make decisions, expressing theat in a positive way, and learning to say “no” when it is appropriate. You can also use assertive communication techniques to help you to communicate your thoughts and feelings firmly and directly during games.

By remaining calm, being honest, sticking to the facts of the situation, and listening carefully to your colleagues and what is going on around you, you’ll ensure a more fruitful relationship with players and club officials.

It likely won’t happen with a click of the fingers but, by practicing these techniques regularly, you will slowly build up the confidence and self-belief that you need to become an assertive official. You’ll also likely find that you become more productive, efficient and respected, too.

At The Third Team I work individually and in collaboration with different professionals where I have developed workshops associated with Resilience and Mental Toughness Development to help referees. The workshops are interactive, where referees are encouraged to open up and share their experiences to help each other.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about my workshops and how I could help you or your officials.

Best Wishes,

Nathan Sherratt Signature

Nathan Sherratt

Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team

Nathan Sherratt

Nathan Sherratt, Referee Educator, Resilience Trainer and Managing Director of The Third Team.  A Mental Toughness Practitioner based in County Durham, North East England.