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Winter Breaks, Rain and Expert Practice: How Referees Can Optimise Preparation.

February saw the first winter break in English football.  While this is common in other European nations, most notably Germany, this novel event saw coaches, players and referees take a sojourn from competitive action.  Many coaches have complained about the timing of the break, with Spurs boss Jose Mourinho stating it should have ended closer to his team’s Champions League tie against RB Leipzig.  Scheduling issues aside, it gave managers the opportunity to prepare for matches and players to rest from the completive side of the game.  This was reflected in the grassroots game, where the wettest February on record caused a significant amount of games to be cancelled, leaving teams wondering how they could complete their season.

But what about the referees?

A break, of course, provides a physical rest and the opportunity to recover.  When referees in England went professional in 2001, most attention and perceived benefit was focused on the physical aspect of Bethevar appperformance; refs would be fitter, stronger and in better positions to make decisions.  This is undoubtedly important, particularly as studies suggest the sport to be 20% faster in 2012 than it was in 2007.  What is often neglected (or at least ignored in public) is that referees can – and do – prepare for games like players.  This includes technical and tactical preparation.  What this article will focus on is why referees do this, if it is a good thing and what the possible drawbacks are.

As stated in previous articles, referees love football.  This inherent joy of the game has many psychological consequences and behaviours.  Perhaps the most important outcome is the willingness to dedicate free time to improving performance.  To underline this importance, let’s consider a study by an expert in human performance, K. Anders Ericsson.

Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist based in the United States, asked music teachers who they felt were the most talented violin players in their class.  It was assumed that these would be the ones that ‘made it’ in the music industry (e.g., earning places in world famous orchestras etc).  However, this wasn’t the case.  When Ericsson reviewed the careers of the musicians, the ones many believed to be ‘naturals’ didn’t go as far as the teachers thought.  Instead, they were overtaken by others.

The defining characteristic of the successful musicians was what Ericsson termed ‘deliberate practice’.

Successful people dedicate time to their craft, especially in private.  The successful violin players strategized and practiced, often alone, in order to maximise their potential.

Professional sportspeople, especially in football, echo this sentiment.  We’ve heard of players like Ronaldo and David Beckham practicing free kicks alone for hours to hone their skill.  Perhaps Gary Neville puts it best:

“I would say preparation for a match has been the key to my career.  If that’s wrong, any element of it is wrong, I’m in trouble.  My biggest lesson in life was preparation costing me and I never took that risk again…you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”


Referees all over the world share this view.  Officials in Spain, for instance, have reported researching behavioural habits of players such as their likelihood for simulation or aggression.  Some officials may also opt for tactical knowledge.  Mark Clattenburg provides a good case study for this, stating that before a 2015 Champions League semi-final between Bayern Munich and Barcelona he was informed by Pierluigi Collina that Bayern’s Thiago Alcântara would deliberately move into an offside position to block the run of a defender (in this case Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué).  This occurred early in the game, allowing Clattenburg to award a foul in favour of Barcelona and leave Alcântara in no doubt that the referee had done their homework.

Technical and tactical awareness can also help with positioning.  If a referee knows that a goalkeeper always plays short passes from their goal kicks it can help with positioning, enabling them to see incidents with greater clarity and sell decisions easier.

So, if a little is good, more must be better, right?

Not necessary.

Referees must exercise caution when researching teams due to the impact it may have on their decision making.  One study, for instance, showed that when referees are aware of a team’s aggressive reputation, they are more likely to punish fouls with cards (see figure 1.1).


Figure 1.1. Adapted from Jones, Paull & Erksine (2002).

The graph above shows that, if a team carries an aggressive reputation then officials are almost twice as likely to punish misdemeanours with a card.  This is why coaches may try to influence referees before the game, suggesting certain teams will play with certain characteristics.

There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon.  One is labelled confirmation bias: basically, if we look for something we’ll find it, but probably miss a lot of contrary information along the way.  For instance, if we believe Italian football to be ‘negative and defensive’ we’ll look for score lines such as 0-0 and 0-1 to support our view, but ignore the thrilling Milan derby that took place in February that saw Inter overturn a two-goal deficit to win 3-2.

Another explanation is that when referees start to consider motives of players, as opposed to what actually happened, it interferes with their implicit decision-making process.  Referees, like players, develop their skill.  Skills, over time, become autonomous.  We don’t know how we do things, we just do them.  Think about your drive to work today, you probably don’t recall paying explicit attention to the process or when to change gear, you just did it.  Try doing an autonomous skill while commenting on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, like making a cup of tea.  It becomes harder.  We regress to that novice stage where we don’t trust ourselves and, let’s remember, novices are not as good as experts.

So, what’s the answer?  If independent practice is good for skill development but certain information can negatively influence a referee, what can officials do when they are between games to maximise their development?

Perhaps we should turn to Ericsson once more to find out, as he suggests a six-point plan of action to improve performance in your free time:

  • Be motivated. Remind yourself of why you want to improve and why this is important to you.  What are you actually hoping to achieve?  Bodybuilders will often train too much if they are too enthusiastic about getting bigger, neglecting the fact that not enough rest is counterproductive.  Be cognizant of what you want to achieve when refereeing and what actions are going to help you.
  • Set specific and realistic goals. You won’t get every decision right, but what do you want to achieve? How can you achieve it?  What information is going to help you and what may harm you in reaching your goals?  Keep it realistic.
  • Push yourself. We tend to focus on ‘what is best practice’?  But perhaps we should consider the question: ‘is best practice still the best’?  Just because it is what you’ve always done, that doesn’t mean it is the best way of improving yourself.  Can you practice differently?  Could you use video training to analyse performance?  Could you keep a logbook to reflect on performance?  Could you go to games and observe other officials more often?  Best practice is always ahead of the curve and trying something new.
  • Be consistent. I often see performers in many sports try something for a small amount of time, only to begrudge their lack of gains.  Ericsson states that the one consistent aspect of expert practice is just that: consistency.  They do not have to be particularly challenging, intense or time-consuming.  But they must be regular.
  • Seek feedback. Can you liaise with other officials to discuss practice?  Psychologists label this ‘unmediated learning’ and studies suggest that this is one of the most undervalued methods of practice.  Don’t be afraid of conflicting opinions; experts seek feedback on performance.
  • As discussed in last month’s article, passion for your trade is important but it shouldn’t define us.  Take breaks.  Have a hobby.  Experts suggest that an hour of practice per day is optimum for improving performance, whereas practicing for more than two hours reduces benefits.

Happy practicing!

Stuart Carrington


Stuart Carrington is a lecturer in Sports Coaching Science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.  He is the author of Blowing the Whistle: The Psychology of Football Refereeing which is available here:

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