Last month, on the 18th January, referee Mike Dean took charge of his 500th Premier League fixture between Arsenal and Sheffield United. Dean is, as Mark Clattenburg stated in his newspaper column celebrating this achievement, ‘marmite’; people tend to love him or hate him (although I hope this term is used in the same way as a pantomime villain).
But Dean provides fertile ground for discussion. He applies the laws rigidly and certainly isn’t, as he puts it himself, a ‘robot’; his personality is expressed throughout the game. People will have their own opinion of this, his style and its effectiveness. But this isn’t the purpose of this article. Instead I want to focus on his accomplishment of 500 matches at the highest level of domestic football. As the iconic USA football player Mia Hamm said, “it is harder to stay at the top than it is to get there.” To put his achievement into perspective, Argentinian full-back Pablo Zabaleta has been in England for 12 years and was recently inaugurated into the 300 appearances club. No mean feat and an outstanding accomplishment but still 200 shy of Dean’s total. So how did our ‘marmite’ ref do it and what can officials at all levels do to help their chances of progress? More precisely, what psychological characteristics does an individual need to have to get to the very top and stay there? Let’s find out.
To answer this question, it’s important to know where Dean started. Referees have a specific pathway that they must follow from Level 9 (or Level 7 if they start their journey once they are 18 years old) to Level 1. Along the way they must travel, often alone, attend training, apply for promotions, get through examinations on both the laws of the game and practical observations. This is until Level 4.
At this stage, promotion is dependent on a merit table. Referees climb the table by receiving positive marks from the clubs they officiate and by passing the judgment of independent observers. At level 2, they must pass an interview for access to the highest level.
Of course, refereeing isn’t the only thing that takes time, dedication, practice and sacrifice to excel in. In fact, if you want to be good at anything you need to be motivated to do so. When players react aggressively to a decision made by the referee, fans often justify it as ‘passion’; they have worked hard to get there and love the game. In my previous article, ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’, we established that intrinsic motivation – the enjoyment you get from participating in an activity – is hugely important to continued participation and the mastery of a skill. After all, we wouldn’t practice playing the piano or taking free-kicks for years if we didn’t enjoy it. So we know that Mike Dean must love the game, and he’s not alone.
In one recent study, referees were asked why do what they do. A variety of reasons were given, including the challenges involved with the role, the feeling of power and the opportunity to contribute to football. The strength of these endorsements can be seen in figure 1. One explanation, however, stands alone as the only reason that every referee endorsed: the love of football.
Figure 1: Reasons given for refereeing (adapted from Wolfson & Neave, 2017).
This love contributes greatly to the grit needed to overcome the challenges and inevitable mistakes that will happen over 500 games. However, and this is our real focus, can this love, this passion for the beautiful game, go too far? Can it, in essence, become a hindrance?
To answer this, we need to look at the work of Canadian social scientist and psychologist Robert Vallerand, who identified two different types of passion: harmonious and obsessive.
Harmonious passion is beneficial to us as it gives us a sense of control and, regardless of how we perform, we experience positive emotions after taking part. Simply put, we control the activity, not the other way around. Harmonious passion is good. We don’t define success with absolute statements such as “I have to win or I am a failure”. This attitude allows us to reflect and learn from mistakes which is imperative for growth. We want to do the activity and our performance (and the activity itself) doesn’t define us as a person.
Sometimes, however, our passion can do more harm than good. We can love our activity too much. This is called obsessive passion. We have it when participation is a need, not a preference, when it causes unhappiness in other aspects of our life and we only feel socially accepted if we are good at what we do.
This is what the theory says, but does Dean have harmonious passion? Absolutely. He is clearly committed to refereeing, but he has other interests (such as watching Tranmere Rovers and he is also a caddy on the female golf tour). He accepts mistakes but doesn’t let them define him. I cannot put his outlook better than how Dean himself describes it: “I don’t have an issue with the odd bad publicity I get as it’s all part of the game we love.” He also states that he doesn’t experience worry after a bad game, another characteristic of harmonious passion and something which is of great importance to a match day official. As we’ll discuss in the coming months, negative emotions can create havoc on performance and well-being.
So what does this mean for you? Whether you are a referee at the highest level or not (or even if you are a player), don’t let your activity define you. Enjoy what you do and have other interests. Reflect on mistakes and accept they will happen. Focus on improvement, not on winning or being perfect.
This even has implications for players and coaches. When we witness someone shouting at a referee we are told ‘it’s passion’. Let’s clear this up: it’s not. It’s frustration, and frustration is not a by-product of passion. You can be passionate about something and still be able to regulate your emotions. How do we know this? Because referees do it every week. Additionally, regulating your emotions actually helps improve performance.
Regardless of what you think of Dean or his skills as an official, his achievement reveals what is needed to get to the top and stay there and the importance of understanding the psychology behind our actions. Resilience, a vital psychological skill for success, has many causes and can be developed. One important contributing factor to its acquirement is a genuine enjoyment of the task at hand. In one recent feature on sports officials, Howard Webb revealed he thought about quitting “about ten times” due to setbacks and criticism. But what kept him going in a career that would reach the World Cup Final was ‘a love of the game’. And if you still doubt the importance of loving what you do as the most important antecedent to success, it is worth remembering what one of the greatest officials of all time, Pierluigi Collina, told a FIFA interviewer: “I still dream about refereeing matches.”
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