Everyone aspires to feel fulfilment. Through life you will face challenging situations which are demanding and stressful. Every referee fails, gets injured, experiences negative life events and retires. Some individuals have the capability to overcome these challenges, and others cannot cope, and they suffer. The officials that do not have the capacity to face extreme pressure will not thrive. In elite sport several officials from many sports have struggled to cope with their mental health and have experienced problems which have led to mental illness and in some cases suicide.
“One in four of us in the UK will be affected by a mental health problem in any year and elite sports professionals are no different.” – Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity for Mind
Throughout an referee’s career, they can be exposed to up to 640 stressors that may cause a mental disorder. Encountering this high amount of pressure comes from factors such as recovering from injury, appointments, and scrutiny by the media. It is also apparent that many elite officials do not understand the importance of mental health and how to effectively optimise or maintain it. Therefore, they can be so prone to mental ill health and not thrive in their performance.
Thriving is the process of development and success, which enables referees to consistently function and sustain performance. Holistic functioning is the key to this as it means mental health and performance are both at a high level. This means that the official’s own individual factors (e.g. own mind-set) maintain their mental health and performance over a considerable length of time.
Thriving In Performance
Thriving in performance is the ability to execute skills at a high-quality level and sustain it for a long period of time, whilst maintaining high levels of wellbeing. Therefore, the referee is physically fit and healthy, mentally healthy, socially competent and emotionally regulated to develop and succeed. This means the official is sound in all four corners of performance (i.e. physical, tactical, technical and mental) to reach the demands placed upon them in sport and life, have the resources and can thrive in a pressured environment (inside sport) and overall function as a human being (outside of sport). Consequently, if the referee is maximising their performance by executing their skills, but their mental health is at a low level, the thriving process will not be sustained. This can lead to negative outcomes such as injury and burn-out and if they do not have sufficient coping mechanisms the athlete will be vulnerable and suffer.
Mental Health In Elite Sport
Although, mental health awareness is increasing, there are still barriers. There is still a huge stigma towards mental health within football culture and this can lead to referees feeling reluctant to speak out or seek support. This is because they can become worried about football staff, the general public or the players perception of them, particularly if they seek support because sport still holds onto a ‘toughness’ umbrella. This toughness culture can mean that officials feel ashamed and embarrassed for being diagnosed with a mental disorder, it being perceived as showing ‘mental weaknesses’. As a result, many referees don’t talk about their stress and mental battles which leads to further complications. They can go down the route of suppressing their emotions and even though they are experiencing an emotion like sadness they will present a happy demeanour or isolate themselves to avoid being judged negatively. As time goes on this coping mechanism can cause further problems for the official’s mental health and performance. This is because the demands they experience inside and outside of sport weigh on them and they do not have the internal resources to overcome their stress. Their coping strategies are unhealthy so their performance declines as their mental health is neglected. In summary, an ‘illness-based lens’ is the way mental health is regarded which feeds into the stigma even more. This means that referees struggle to understand what mental health clearly is in elite sport.
Recently, a sport specific definition of mental health was produced so that those in sport could relate to it:
“Mental health is not merely the absence of illness, but a state of wellbeing in which those involved in competitive sport realise their purpose and potential, can cope with competitive sport demands and normal life stressors, can work productively and fruitfully, can act autonomously according to their personal values, are able to make a contribution to their community and feel they can seek support when required”.
Considering the sport specific definition of mental health and the main signs of mental ill-health, leads to the personal facilitators of what officials need to possess to thrive in their mental health and performance in a football setting and outside of sport.
These contribute towards optimum performance and mental health. This means the referee has the suitable internal resources to manage and overcome the challenges they face in their performance and everyday life. They are the qualities which the individual possess’ to positively influence their confidence, motivation, focus and overall mindset so they can consistently commit and manage the stress and pressure of training, fixtures and everyday life. However, this can only occur if the official’s values, trusts and is committed towards their career development, and look after their mental health.
This is when a referee is optimistic, feels confident in their own ability and has high self-esteem. They value who they are, what they can do and they believe in themselves. This mindset is maintained when they experience any stress or face any challenges.
Techniques For A Positive Outlook
- The inner voice in your head – this can be negative, but also positive.
- Officials can doubt themselves, feeling incompetent and feel low which can impact on mental health and performance.
- The dialog in our minds can determine whether we think negatively or positively.
- What we say to ourselves should be as positive as possible; “I am good enough”, “I am special”, “I am important”.
- Thinking positively, and rehearsing these statements each day (e.g. when you wake up and when you go to sleep), over time will transform your mindset into a positive one.
- Put these statements in a visible place such as on your fridge or in a journal you take to work, to aid the process of positive thinking
These referees strive to reach their potential by always wanting to learn and be open to new experiences. They want to challenge themselves, to grow, develop and succeed. Through this process they want to gain knowledge and skills for their performance, to reach its peak. Pushing themselves to their limits and highly passionate about officiating as they see it as meaningful and of value. The referee accepts and takes responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Growth can only happen when they accept: their issues for what they are, that the past cannot be changed, that the present and future can be changed and are interested in new insights and information.
- By first reflecting and having high self-awareness enables you to identify what your mental state is like, what you need to improve on, where you are now and where you want to be.
- Once an official goes through the process of acceptance you can move forward, create an action plan and goal set.
- What you want to achieve in the short-term and long-term to reach your vision so that your mental health is optimised and performance sustained:
- Identify, specifically what is needed to be worked on (e.g. doing more self-care).
- Decide how much self-care you want to do each day (e.g. 30 minutes) – review weekly and monthly.
- Making sure the targets are achievable, relevant and of appropriate duration (e.g. create a healthy sleeping routine – turn off all devices before 20:00, stretch, read, complete some expressive writing and a breathing exercise, and then sleep).
Having the ability to manage thoughts, feelings and behaviours under different conditions; high, medium or low pressure. The referee is aware of how to respond appropriately and effectively to any situation as they focus on relevant information and do not get distracted. Having the skillset to adapt and concentrate on what matters in the present moment and they execute their skills accordingly and consistently to a high level. Feeling in control enables the official to respond appropriately and effectively to colleagues to build higher quality relationships and work more efficiently with them.
Techniques For Control
- Staying present and feeling in control of your mind and body.
- Fully focused in the here and now.
- Calm and relaxed.
- Less overwhelmed, anxious and more prepared and ready to train and compete.
- A brilliant way to become more mindful and less anxious or stressed is by executing this grounding technique in and outside your sport:
- Five things that you can see, four things that you can feel, three things that you can hear, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste.
- Include this in your morning routine, before training/matchday etc
- Reduces somatic anxiety (e.g. heart rate and breathing rate), which enables the body to relax and the referee to feel more in control.
Can be included with imagery by imagining yourself in your own happy place:
- Where all the good things in your life are (e.g. family and friends on a beach)
- You are safe and well.
- You are in control.
- You can smell the sea air.
- You can hear the waves.
- You can feel the sand on your feet.
- You can picture yourself smiling, laughing and completely relaxed.
It is virtually impossible to experience absolute balance in life as there are so many day-to-day factors and influences. As an official there is lots of training and matchdays and with that comes high amounts of travelling. This can make it highly challenging affecting ability to have a healthy routine, but there are lots of ways to make sure you’re looking after your mind and body. Therefore, the referee does not over-train, burnout and has an identity outside of football. By having an identity within and outside football creates a multidimensional purpose and increases their self-worth. This also accommodates the transition into retirement in the future.
- Cut down on social media activity e.g. log-out after 20:00 each day, don’t go on it until after you’ve stretched out of bed, taken some deep breathes, made breakfast, got showered and ready and then reflected on the day ahead – starting with a productive and positive start to the day increases wellbeing and performance
- Before going to bed instead of watching TV or going on a device read a book, complete a breathing exercise, do some expressive writing etc
- Self-help techniques need to be consistently practiced maximising benefits.
- If struggling to access support – talk to someone trusted, ring a helpline, talk to your support team (e.g. coach, manager or sport psychologist)
- To thrive in mental health and performance referees need to accept, understand and look after their mental health.
- Personal facilitators are essential factors for maximising mental health and performance at an individual level.
- There are many techniques you can use for equipping yourself to have the required internal resources to be mentally healthy and perform.
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.
Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team
Nathan Sherratt, Referee Educator, Resilience Trainer and Managing Director of The Third Team. A Mental Toughness Practitioner based in County Durham, North East England.