Stuck in the Middle with You: VAR and the Referee

The introduction of VAR in the Premier League this season has, without doubt, resulted in the biggest talking points of the season so far.  Are some teams getting more favourable decisions than others?  Has it damaged the enjoyment fans (and players) experience during the game?  How much intervention is too much?  I could go on.  The irony here is that most fans, coaches and players would rather spend less time talking about referees and VAR was supposed to help this cause, not contribute to it.  Much has been made of the lines drawn to establish whether or not a player is offside, the lack of pitch-side monitors and communication with fans.  It is only recently that the Premier League have asked Hawk-Eye (who provide the updates fans see on the stadium screens) to provide more written information for spectators.  Debates on whether VAR, as Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder put it, ‘sucks the life out of the game’ or not will continue and is largely a matter of opinion.  While these are legitimate questions, what is rarely considered is the impact on the referee.  Here, we’ll explore the effect VAR may have on the referee from a psychological perspective and, as we will see, it is likely that many decisions involving VAR and its implementation were taken without considering some potentially important consequences.

A referee has a difficult job.  As the arbitrator of the most competitive and passionate game of the planet they are expected to apply the laws, show common sense, keep up with athletes that are at the peak of physical fitness and remain impervious to the effects of a partisan crowd and desperate players.  I’m sure over the following months we’ll explore these issues further.  However, while we would all agree these factors make the official’s role challenging, we often forget that the journey a referee takes to get the highest level is their biggest obstacle.  It is hard, time-consuming and sacrifices have to be made.  It’s incredibly similar to that of a player.  A young footballer must practice, make mistakes and stay resilient in the face of criticism and setbacks.  A referee does the same.  So why would anyone do it?

This is a question of intrinsic motivation (IM): what drives our actions and how we gain fulfilment.  While we might be motivated by money and fame this is not really sustainable for success; it is our need to meet challenges, gain knowledge and be independent in our actions that enables us to succeed.  Therefore, IM is incredibly important for sport performance as it is hard to practice consistently without motivation and if we lack it we are likely to suffer from a number of consequences.  For instance, those with high IM are more likely to:

  • Persist in the face of adversity
  • Practice in their own time and think about their actions
  • Strategise
  • Discuss performance with others and seek help

So we can see that IM is incredibly important for performance.

But what has this got to do with VAR?

While no studies have been completed regarding the impact of VAR on officials (there simply hasn’t been the time yet) what we can do is use current theory and apply it to attempt to understand how VAR in its current format might affect a referee’s IM and, consequently, their performance. 

A particularly relevant theory here is ‘self-determination theory’.  This theory suggests that for an individual to preserve IM and perform a role to their best of their ability they must fulfil three basic needs.  These can be seen in the figure below:

Match official- VAR

Figure 1: The three needs for self-determination (adapted from Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Let’s look at each one at a time.

  1. Autonomy (e.g., a high perception of ‘control’ over their actions.  If a coach tells a player exactly what to do all the time, the player is unlikely to be satisfied with their role, resulting in a decrease in IM and a decrease in performance).
  2. Competence (e.g., feeling that they are good at their role.  If a coach always tells a player they are doing a bad job or making mistakes, they do not feel that they are mastering the task they wish to master, harming IM).
  3. Relatedness (e.g., the opportunity to talk to others in a similar role.  If a coach keeps a player away from team meetings or doesn’t involve them in discussions, their IM will decrease).

So, what does this mean regarding the impact of VAR and the referee?

My view is that VAR in its current format undermines all these needs.  It almost certainly decreases the level of autonomy a referee feels.  How can they when VAR isn’t suggesting they have missed something, but telling them they have?  It removes all control.  Regarding competence, this is open to debate as referees will be aware that they can get decisions wrong.  However, the frequency of VAR intervention (for errors that not ‘clear and obvious’) could very possibly decrease levels of competence.  This is particularly true for assistant referees who may have kept their flag down in the belief that a play is onside, only for VAR to rule that they have missed the big toe (or armpit) of the player in an offside position).  Finally, VAR seems to be over-ruling referees rather than discussing issues with them (as opposed to rugby, for example, where the referee requests assistance).  Therefore, it does not contribute to relatedness.

But this doesn’t mean that VAR can’t work or help a referee.  It has been mentioned many times that referees should be able to see a pitch-side monitor, something that Michael Oliver did during the FA Cup third round match between Crystal Palace and Derby County.  This recommendation would help satisfy the three prongs of self-determination theory.  Rather than VAR telling an official what they should do, it is merely a guide.  By looking at the monitor for his or herself, the referee is in total control of decisions.  Competence wouldn’t be undermined by voice in their ear telling them they’ve made a mistake, but rather enhanced with that voice saying, ‘there may be something you’ve missed, maybe not, but we trust you and back your judgment.’  Finally, having someone tell us what to do doesn’t make us feel connected to that person and so relatedness isn’t improved with VAR in its current format.  But having a helping hand, someone telling us that maybe we’ve missed something but leaving it up to us whether we talk more or take them up on their offer?  Well, that just might.

If, as former FIFA official Keith Hackett stated, referees “live on confidence”, VAR should not only be helping them make the right decisions but helping them develop this fundamental aspect of their psychology.  It can do this, but it must be applied with this in mind.

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: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blowing-Whistle-Psychology-Football-Refereeing/dp/1911121626/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1RMZKANQOYRG6&keywords=blowing+the+whistle&qid=1578307434&sprefix=blowing+%2Caps%2C144&sr=8-1