Managing Emotions As A Referee

Managing Emotions As A Referee

There is no construct of human psychology and functioning more prevalent in refereeing than emotion. Mood and emotions can influence every movement on the field of play. Consider a typical 45 second spell where the ball breaks against the run of play. Within those brief 45 seconds, the official might begin the sprint with high confidence (“I’m going to be in the best position to make a decision!”), follow the correct patrol path with high excitement (“I’m going to have a clear view of the next incident!”), get blocked by a last minute change of direction inducing feelings of frustration (“That was a missed opportunity to make a correct decision”) and guilt (“I could have made a key match decision correctly there”), get back into position follow the play and identify a careless foul which raises the referee’s pride (“I somewhat redeemed my performance by working hard and maintaining my effort”), and finally, end in a mass confrontation where players are verbally abusive blaming you as the match official inducing anger (“I can’t believe they’re fighting and blaming me!”). Six different emotions within 45 seconds and each emotion will have the potential to help or hinder the referee’s performance.

Effectively managing emotions then becomes an important skillset for every official. Emotion regulation means the use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify, or display emotions. This means that any attempt to change how long an emotion lasts, how intensely you feel the emotion, or what you are actually feeling is an attempt at emotion regulation. Further, emotion regulation isn’t just about changing how you feel, but can also involve changing the emotion’s action response (i.e., avoidance or confrontation) and physiological responses (e.g., facial expression or breathing patterns).

Emotion Regulation: A Family Affair

There are literally hundreds of different emotion regulation strategies. Research has identified five families of emotion regulation. Each can be used in refereeing:

  • Situation Selection: An official can modify their emotions by selecting which situation to engage in. For example, a referee who is nervous about re-aggravating an injury might choose to come off a game in order to calm themselves. Goal-setting can act as a type of “situation selection” in that it can help ensure the official remains in desired and intended situations. 

  • Situation Modification: Once dedicated to the situation, the referee can change some aspect of it to manage their emotions. For example, an official who is nervous about a specific movement might take a different patrol path in order to feel more confident about the whole performance. Consistently doing performance debriefs can help a referee reflect on what potential tactics are available based on anticipated situations.

  • Attentional Deployment: An official can also choose what aspect of the situation to focus on (and/or ignore). For example, they may be worried about the impending outcome of the game might choose to focus on specific aspects of the next phase of play to shut out distracting thoughts about the outcome. Focus strategies that have primed the referee on what is in, and out of, the official’s control can be an effective tool here.

  • Cognitive Change: A referee can choose what meaning or perspective to have about any situation. For example, if they are happy with their performance in the first half of a game, they might remind themself that “there’s still another half to go” in order to maintain a high and focused intensity. Given the strong link between appraisals and emotions, self-talk (that is, the things we say to ourselves either out loud or in our head) is an essential tool for effective cognitive change.

  • Response Modulation (Suppression): After an official has experienced an emotion, he or she can try to alter the emotional response (behavioral, physical, or physiological). For example, they can hide feelings of frustration by resisting the urge to curse or throw their arms in air. Having visualised potential “if-then” plans to employ based on anticipated emotional responses can be an effective tool in this circumstance.  

Each emotion has the potential to either help or hinder performance. Identifying which emotions do what in any given circumstance is the first step to learning how to manage emotions. Once this has been accomplished, referees can begin to identify and practice emotion regulation strategies that are both effective and are likely to be employed based on the official’s ability and personality as well as the confines of refereeing.

At The Third Team I work individually and in collaboration with different professionals where I have developed workshops and 1-2-1 sessions associated with Resilience and Mental Toughness Development to help referees. The workshops and 1-2-1 sessions are interactive, where referees are encouraged to open up and share their experiences to help themselves and each other.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about my workshops or 1-2-1 sessions and how I could help you or your officials.

Best Wishes,

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Nathan Sherratt

Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team

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Nathan Sherratt

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