Mental game for referees

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by Jimmy Yoo

When I am right, no one remembers. When I am wrong, no one forgets.” – Doug Harvey, Hall of Fame Umpire

During competition, referees decision-making is always subject to public opinion. As a result, referees find that they are often criticized and questioned on their decision-making and game-management skills. Good referees can make sporting events flow well and they are able to create a positive environment that is focused on sportsmanship and competition. On the other hand, inefficient referees can make a sporting event seem to drag on because play is constantly being interrupted by fouls or penalties being called, which can also lead to angry coaches and athletes, and unruly fans.

To be successful as a referee, it is important to be proficient in the following areas: game knowledge, decision-makings skills, psychological skills, strategic skills, communication or control of the game, and physical fitness (Guillen & Feltz, 2011).

Game knowledge includes knowing the rules, understanding proper officiating mechanics, and understanding the basic strategy of the game.

Decision-making skills are defined by how quickly and accurately a referee is able to make decisions that include making accurate judgment calls and being firm in one’s decisions.

Psychological skills are defined as focusing attention and concentration, staying cool under pressure, and recovering quickly from making a bad call.  These are almost identical to the psychological skills athletes need, and therefore sport psychology can be beneficial to referees too.

Strategic skills tend to focus on making the right interpretation of the game and its rules. Strategic skills include being able to stay up with the play, being at the proper angles for decisions, and anticipating game actions.

Communication means being able to communicate effectively with players, coaches, and co-officials. Effective communication equates to maintaining control of the game and resolving disputes.

Physical fitness or being in good physical shape allows the referee to stay up with the play.
Even if referees are well versed in these six categories, challenges faced during competition can interfere with performance. For referees, on field obstacles include: working with an uncooperative officiating partner(s), inclement weather, intense coaches and athletes, and unruly fans. With the start of the spring sports season, here are some helpful tips for referees:

Goal Setting: This can help you to identify obstacles or distractions that prevent you from staying focused. By goal setting, you can identify potential challenges and create a plan on how to deal with those challenges.

Communication: The most respected referees not only know the rules and make the right calls, they also communicate well with the athletes, coaches, and the other referees managing the game. The following information was taken from the January 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine:

#1. Understand that coaches can be passionate and sometimes overbearing. Listen beyond their tone of voice to hear and understand their underlying questions or concerns, and remember to be polite in your response.

#2. Know the rules like the back of your hand. This allows you to listen to coaches and decipher the meaning in their comments. It also leads to better consistency with the other referees managing the game. Most of all have the rulebook onsite.

#3. During timeouts, between quarters, or at halftime, be available to listen to coaches with an open mind. Answer rules-related questions using specific language of the rules.

Staying calm and relaxed under pressure: One aspect of staying calm under pressure is to understand what is in your control. For example, a referee cannot control how coaches or the fans are going to respond to a penalty that is called, but you are in control of being objective when calling a penalty and not letting your emotions, the coaches, or the athletes influence your decision.

Motivation and Enjoyment: Successful referees enjoy what they are doing. Like athletes, success is based off of hard work, dedication, and practical experience. The more work you put into something, the easier it becomes; and the easier it becomes, the more fun you tend to have. Likewise, it is important to understand why you enjoy it. If you are having fun, then you are motivated to work harder and improve your skills.

If you are interested in learning more about mental tools of the trade for referees, or just have questions that have come up while reading this article, please feel free to contact SPINw. We work with referees individually or in a group setting. Let us help you to unlock your potential so that you can consistently perform with confidence, focus, and joy for the game!

Helpful Articles:

Confidence versus arrogance:

The Psychological Qualities of a Good Referee:

Trust and Respect:

Avoiding Distractions:


Guillen, F., and Feltz, D. L. (2011). A conceptual model of referee efficacy. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(25), 1-5.

Clark, L. P., (2014, January 14). Why can’t we be friends? Lacrosse Magazine, 38 (1), 68.


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