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How Psychology Helps Referees

The first time that the concepts, procedures and techniques of sports psychology were included in a preparation plan for referees as high-level sportsmen and women was in the run-up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. The experiment produced highly satisfactory results.
It is a well-known fact that the referee is of fundamental importance if sporting events are to run smoothly. The referee is responsible for ensuring that competitions unfold in accordance with the rules and regulations of the relevant sport. The referee is required to observe, interpret and consider the actions of players in the context of the laws in order to sanction infringements accordingly. This threefold task of observing, interpreting and reaching a decision is extremely complex because often it must be carried out in a fraction of a second in ambiguous circumstances and under mental pressure.
Adequate refereeing at events such as the FIFA World Cup™ is essential given football’s importance in society, the media and in financial terms. It is thus essential to equip referees with a series of resources and skills that enable them to carry out this difficult task with the necessary degree of excellence.
Proper training and a rigorous process for the selection of refereeing teams are vital for achieving the desired results.
Traditionally, the training and selection process used to be composed of physical and technical preparation. A good referee must be well acquainted with the Laws of the Game, interpret and apply them correctly, be in good physical condition, be well positioned on the field of play at all times and have a good understanding with the other members of the refereeing team.
However, these characteristics may not be sufficient to guarantee adequate performances if they are not accompanied by other psychological attributes that can make a decisive contribution to achieving a high level of refereeing. Referees can be prone to chronic and acute stress which, besides damaging their health, can also interfere with the quality of their performances (Alonso-Arbiol, Falco, Lopez, Ordaz and Ramirez, 2005). Experienced referees emphasise that there is a series of psychological skills that distinguishes the most talented referees from their colleagues and that these skills are between 50 and 70 per cent responsible for successful performances by referees (Weinberg and Richardson, 1990). These psychological skills require specific preparation to which few referees pay sufficient attention.
Various authors have pinpointed the psychological skills that a good referee must possess and that must be included and practised in training schedules, namely concentration, confidence, decision-making ability, effective interpersonal communication skills and self-control. Indeed, Weinberg and Richardson posit that the ability to successfully confront the various stress-inducing factors that referees encounter could provide the very basis for effective referee selection criteria.
In this regard, sports psychologists have identified the key areas and performance guidelines to be developed in consultation with referees that other authors consider essential for football (Fernandez and Lopez, 1999), namely concentration, communication skills and self-control.
The 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ was a milestone in the increased scope of referee preparation: for the first time ever it was decided that the concepts, procedures and techniques of sports psychology for high-level sportsmen and women would be included in the preparation plan for referees. This decision was unprecedented and innovative and, given the magnitude of the World Cup, it also presented a risk. Nevertheless, psychological training has been widely endorsed by the results it has produced and has established itself for once and for all as a necessary aspect of refereeing that should be taken into account in future competitions and accorded a similar status to other aspects of preparation.