The Struggle Faced By Referees In Relation To Mental Health

The Struggle Faced By Referees In Relation To Mental Health

Physical activity is commonly shown to improve Mental Health, as suggested by evidence that shows a 20-30% reduction in depression in adults who participate in physical activity daily. Physical activity can help to improve wellbeing, even a short burst of exercise or a 10-minute walk increases our mental alertness, energy, and positive mood. However, for referees involved in football, an improvement in Mental Health isn’t always the case.

A consensus statement on Mental Health in officials has recently been released. This identified 10 Mental Health disorders that can be experienced by referees. These were:

  1. Sleep disorders
  2. Major depressive disorder
  3. Suicide
  4. Anxiety
  5. Post-traumatic stress disorder
  6. Eating disorder
  7. ADHD
  8. Bipolar and psychotic disorders
  9. Substance use disorders
  10. Gambling disorder and other behavioural disorders

The Olympian’s Experience

In the recent Tokyo Olympic Games, Gymnast Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, made the decision to not compete in the rest of the games. Simone Biles said “I have to focus on my Mental Health” after withdrawing from the women’s team final. She also stated that ‘Mental Health is more important than the pursuit of medals’, this shows that the amount of pressure placed on her to do well had forced her to withdraw and focus on herself.

Being a successful referee, can take a toll on Mental Health due to the pressure from club officials, players, and spectators to make no mistakes. As a result of Biles raising awareness of her struggles with mental health, she has hopefully encouraged others to speak up about their own experiences, as well as highlighting the impact the pressures of elite sport can have on those involved.

She has shown the effects of being in a competitive environment and the struggles of participating in sport. Officials spend years preparing for big events, such as Cup Finals, where they are representing their county or country and showcasing their talent to thousands of people. This can create an enormous amount of pressure due to the feelings of uncertainty, fear of failure and the need to succeed.

In addition to pressure to succeed, there are many reasons for referees to suffer from Mental Health issues, here are a few of them:


Retiring can be a difficult and challenging process for officials. Mind say this is because those who have spent their life being defined as an referee, now have to get used to and adapt to a life without officiating, which can cause a lack of self-identity and missing refereeing can cause depression.

Injury & Performance Failure 

One of the most recognised risk factors for psychological distress amongst officials has been injury. A study of 353 male referees from a mixture of counties in England found that 51% of them showed symptoms of depression after being injured and 12% became moderately to severely depressed. When a referee is injured, they can no longer use exercise as a form of stress relief, which can be mentally challenging, they may feel frustration and self-helplessness. Performance failure can be demotivating as it may mean goals are not met, this can lead to a decrease in self-belief and a feeling of letting themselves and others down.

Struggling in Silence

Referees who have revealed their own stories of Mental Health in sport, encourage others to do the same so that they aren’t suffering alone. Many claim that as an official you are “supposed to be able to handle things”, which can create a stigma around asking for help and support as it means having to admit you have a weakness. This can make Mental Health issues worse as the referees are attempting to deal with it themselves without professional help.

Officials tend to refrain from seeking support for their Mental Health. This can be due to stigma around Mental Health, lack of understanding on the subject and the perception that seeking help is a sign of weakness. Hopefully, by more referees speaking up about their Mental Health issues, others will be inspired to do the same and reach out for support.

In terms of officials getting help with their Mental Health, there are many projects and organisations out there to provide support. A charity that is attempting to make a change is State of Mind. State of Mind is a charity that aims to promote positive Mental Health, deliver education on the subject, tackle the stigma, and encourage access to support to ultimately prevent suicide. They also provide health resources and adult Mental Health First Aid training which can be used to benefit referees in distress. Officials have been quoted saying they support this charity and what it’s doing, for example, ex-footballer Roy Keane says “I am fully supportive of the State of Mind campaign. Mental Health issues need to be addressed and doing it through sport should raise the profile”.

Although Referees may seem like they are doing well because they are being appointed to key fixtures, behind the scenes they may be struggling with a Mental Health issue. If you’re reading this and are struggling yourself don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Links To Mental Health Support:

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,

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.