Body Language of Elite Football Referees — Part 1

The best referee is the one who is seen and heard when the game or situation requires him to be seen or heard. Referees should attempt to manage the game in the background. When the players are not cooperating, the referee must then make his presence known and his message must be seen and/or heard. — USA Referee Training Program (2009)

You need to be a good communicator, not just of decisions made but equally important have the ability to get your message across to players, managers and spectators. Referees are required to remain calm, controlled and develop high concentration levels to be successful.Ian Blanchard, ex-head of FA’s National Referee Development (2008)

A good referee need nerves of steel and a cool head … a strong personality and be able to exercise self-control, especially when provoked. You also need to communicate well with the players. If you go on the field with an arrogant, dictatorial attitude, it is very difficult to be accepted and win respect. A glance from the referee should be enough to make a player understand that he is breaking the rules. Body language is very important, especially when you cannot communicate in a foreign language. Sometimes everything can depend on the way you look at a player. – Massimo Busacca, Fifa & World Cup referee (2006)

Staying calm and focused is one of the golden rules of refereeing. – Pierluigi Collina, 2002 World Cup Final referee (The Rules of the Game, 2003)


Watching FIFA’s history of World Cup 1990 (Italy), 1994 (USA), 1998 (France) 2002 (South Korea & Japan) and 2006 (Germany) I noticed  the gradual and sophisticated improvement of referees’ communicative skills over the last 2 decades, in particular body language referees utilize to control football matches. Experienced referees are often masterful in their self awareness and control over communicative body language.

Referee Roberto Rosetti of Italy using his personality, presence and body language to handle a protest from French captain Zidane (Spain vs France, World Cup 2006)

However, elite referees have the advantages of natural abilities and aptitudes, helped by the experience of hundreds – or even thousands – of games officiated, as well as rigorous, regular and expert mentoring and feedback from referee instructors. Most amateur referees are committed and willing, but do not have such advantages.

There is little evidence and studies on which to base match officials communication and body language skill training. A recent review of empirical scientific literature found that there are very few articles that “specifically examine communication skills in sports officials.” (Mascarenhas et al, 2005). This shortage of research data helps to explain the lack of communication practice and training in formal referee curricula. There is a dire shortage of specific training tasks for referee communication skills.

Most elite level referees acquired their communicative skills through many years of officiating matches and, of late at the highest level, only some perceptual-cognitive specialized training with feedback. MacMahon et al. (2007) also notes there are few exercises available for assisting referees to develop more effective communication and interaction skills with players. Although the importance of communication is widely recognized and conventional referee wisdom at amateur and pro levels are plentiful, the processes and importance of certain communication displays through the medium of body language are often not well understood. The point is stressed by some scholars that future sports research should explore and examine the training referees receive in communicative skills and the use of body language.

"Sometimes everything can depend on the way you look at a player."

Referee training programs at most levels of officiating tend to emphasize acquisition of knowledge of the Laws of the Game, physical strength and conditioning exercises, largely overlooking referee skills in decision-making and communication. Referees are often required to perform at a high level in a complex and dynamic match environment when only partial or incomplete information is available to them due to various factors (angle of view, split-second decisions, non-availability of video replays etc.). Blowing the whistle and calling on field fouls use to be a simple process. Not so in the modern game, as successful performance (to stay in the top officiating panels) is typically dependent upon the ability of  match officials to work both independently and as a team in an effective manner by combining their perceptual -, cognitive -, motor – as well social skills.

At all levels, referees execute and communicate their decisions under stressful match conditions. The stress factor ratchets progressively higher as referees themselves get promoted to top officiating structures. Stress is omni-present due to, in no small part, ever-present video broadcasts and the financial stakes involved. Even at amateur levels referees don’t escape from stress. As David Elleray, Fifa & EUFA Referee Instructor succinctly noted:

“Every time the referee blows his whistle, he upsets half the players and roughly half the crowd.”

Referees frequently debate the most effective techniques and each have an opinion about the best way to communicate their onfield decisions. Conventional and well supported referee wisdom dictates that referees should execute and communicate their decisions calmly, and that a brief explanation of decisions in certain circumstances improves player reactions. Take for instance the act of displaying a yellow card (caution) to a player and the apparent conflicting views expounded by various referees …

you can’t issue a card unless you have a very good reason for giving one. Some referees just issue them like confetti and it can get frustrating for players when they don’t know what they get it for. By saying to a player “your being cautioned for this” your explaining you know the LOTG [laws of the game] and that his actions are unacceptable and all players are warned that if it occurs again they will receive the same punishment!

… a simple one line when issuing a card is sufficient, it gives understanding and complete openness … trust me if a player has a go at you and asks you a question, those referee who don’t respond or completely ignore players often struggle to control games … communication is such a big thing in any sport and it is paramount that, as referees, we keep communication lines open and don’t just “pick and choose” when we communicate with players using our tongues! By doing this it slows the match down and takes the heat out of the situation.

Personally, the less you say the better in my opinion. They’ve committed a foul worthy of a yellow card so they know what they’ve done. Anything you say will incite them, especially if you manage to say the wrong thing. I show the card as I’m walking in from where I was. Simple technique. (Ausref Forum, 2007)

The different approaches above reflect the complexity of human interpersonal action and individual differences in referees personalities, experiences and beliefs. It could be argued that in different circumstances each approach might be the best or the worst to adopt. But the different approaches also illustrate what Mellick et al. (2005) called the variable “hidden curriculum” referees rely on to develop their communication skills.

This hidden curriculum is based on personal experience in and outside football, and advice from refereeing assessors, colleagues and mentors, not all of whom are always experts. The advice referees receive about appropriate use of tone, gesture and talking with players is largely based on hearsay, and often conflicted. Some referees advise a personable style with a focus on respect for players, others recommend a terse style with a focus on detachment and maintaining their authority (Simmons, 2008). Complicating the issue is the referee’s endavour in displaying a calm body language whilst dealing with players and onfield problems – a difficult skill to learn at best.

Why then is communication skills and body language so important in the world of refereeing? Swiss sports psychologist Mattia Piffaretti, tasked by the European Football Association (EUFA) to help Elite referees on this matter, has this to say:

“Part of the art of good refereeing is finding the right balance in decision making, communication and discipline. A referee’s use of body language can establish relationships on the field with the players, while also remaining in control of a match. It can show confidence, calmness, firmness, authority, or even the referee’s human side if a player is injured, for example.”

Swedish referee Peter Fröjdfeldt showing empathy (Germany vs Portugal, World Cup 2006)

“Referees use body language to enhance performance, show leadership, enhance game management skills such as mediating and creating a connection, and to win trust and respect from players. Body language should be changed to suit the situation. It is a form of communication; it needs to be natural and fluent.

“But you have to make reasonable use of body language, because players might start to perceive you more as a friend than as a leader.”

“You don’t have to show off or exaggerate. You have to use the right quantity and quality of body language – otherwise you will force yourself into a character which you were not, and players will perceive this. You have to remain yourself.”

Piffaretti identifies four key reasons why referees’ body language is such a crucial part of their communication skill.

(1) Body language skill transcends language barriers;

(2) It’s very useful in a noisy match environment where verbal communication can be difficult;

(3) Body language can have an immediate effect, reducing the need for a referee to stop a match to address an issue verbally.

(4) Sometimes it’s difficult to address players’ emotions in words, so the referee can use gestures instead.

Studies show that we communicate roughly 55% through body language, 38% through the tone of our voice and 7% through the actual content of what we say. Referees in the top echelons of officiating know that body language, in addition to player-management, are central to effective refereeing and quality football.

Simmons, in a recent study presented to Fifa’s Scientific Committee in 2008, underscored the importance of communicative skills for referees. The conclusion reached (inter alia) is that proper communication skills influences player perceptions of fairness and correctness in referee decisions and referees will benefit from their understanding and mastery thereof. I will come back later to Simmons insightful study, sponsored by the  João Havelange Research Scholarship. It should be made required reading for all upcoming and experienced referees.

However, Simmons is also quick to note that for some players, who are intoxicated by revenge or rage (or substance!), referee communicative skill will have no influence, but that generally referee sensitivity to players and situations are doubtless important.

It seems no amount of communicative skill would have “saved” referee Andy D’Urso from being chased around the field given the verbal onslaught from United captain Roy Keane & company. (Manchester United v Middlesbrough, 2000.)

Referee Andy D’Urso (above) awarded Middlesbrough a penalty kick due to a foul committed by Dutch defender Jaap Stam. Upon awarding the penalty kick, five Manchester United players (Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham) chased D’Urso to object the decision; the resulting video images were freely circulated by the media. D’Urso himself offers a solution, with the benefit of hindsight:

“It was my first season in the Premier League, my first time refereeing Manchester United and my first time at Old Trafford. With more experience I would have stood my ground. I kept saying “go away”, but the further back I walked the more they walked on. A more experienced referee would not have retreated.” See the video.

In part 2 I will soon give some pointers on what communication tools the referee has at his disposal and how to use these tools to the best advantage in controlling a match.

PS: I have just been informed I am to officiate the 1/2 Final of a  knock-out competition. So much for thinking my season came to an end, so match preparation will start in earnest.

Until later…