Mindhunter, behavioral science as applied to modern-day refereeing

In the first part of this series we discussed old school refereeing namely “refereeing by the book” and the transformation into “man management” in modern day refereeing. (Since Jaap Uilenberg used the phrase ‘man management’ when I was first introduced to the concept more than 10 years ago, I used the same phrase. The use of "player management" would definitely be a better choice.) Now it is time to look into the Netflix series “Mindnunter” and how the lessons learned there could be used in our beautiful game. 

The old school law enforcement says if a person commits a crime, the system should apprehend the person and let the judiciary system decide the outcome. Even though the USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world, incarceration and capital punishment does not seem to solve our high crime rate in the modern world. The FBI in the 1970’s set up a “behavioral science” unit to investigate the profile of serial killers and hence if possible identify them early enough to prevent new murders by the serial killer. This department’s success can be measured by the decrease of number of serial killers since 1970s. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other types of crimes. Yet this is not an article on “Crime and Punishment."

The law enforcement officers in soccer are referees and their “punishment” tools are free kicks, penalty kicks, cautions and sending offs.  (I will not mention terminating a game, which is very rare and a very severe punishment.) You need all four tools for good “player management." They are the necessary tools but not sufficient ones in the modern refereeing world of player management. 

As an old school referee of the 1970s and '80s, I believed that the job of the referee is to identify the fouls and when necessary use the cards. I am not old enough to referee in the 1960s and so I never used “booking” or pointing to the side line for sending offs. (The cards were first used in the 1970 World Cup.)  I was a pretty good referee -- one of the top referees in South Texas -- and I used many cards in going up the ladder. Towards the end of my refereeing career, I realized that a good referee can manage verbal dissent and I very rarely used a yellow card for verbal dissent. But still I believed that a good referee should use his/her cards without other considerations. I admired top-level referees that used those cards without hesitation and abundantly. 

Refereeing has recently changed although there is no “behavioral science” department at FIFA. Today’s “player management” requires referees to identify trouble makers -- criminal profiling -- early enough so that the game and the players can be managed without having to issue cards. The referee is out there to manage the players and the game. He/she is not out there to show how authoritative he/she is by displaying cards. One thing is clear: there are cards that no referee can avoid in a game. If a referee does not use those cards, then the game will get out of control and the players will become vigilantes.  

When identifying trouble-maker players, one method used is to watch the games of the teams prior to the game. But there is a danger there; one can cross the line from “criminal profiling” into “racial profiling,” which is unconstitutional. That is a referee can keep a good eye on players that might cause trouble, but should not penalize them for things that they did not commit thinking that they might have committed. This is a very thin line and “criminal profiling” should definitely be avoided in the non-professional game, since the referees will not be experienced enough to see the difference between “criminal” and “racial” profiling.

As I said earlier, the cards are your necessary tools to manage players but they are not sufficient in the modern-day refereeing. A good referee first of all must have a good body language and the correct demeanor throughout the game. Not only that the referee should have a positive body language, he/she should be able to read the body language of players trying to identify gestures that might be provocative or dissenting. The earlier it is the better. If the referee can identify the problematic areas in the game early enough, he/she might be able to avoid some -- not all -- of the cards. The use of an appropriate word or two with a correct timing and correct tone of voice is very helpful; definitely a tirade must be avoided. Pierluigi Collina’s look with his big and blue eyes was far more powerful than any tirade.  A referee who played the game at a reasonable level will be better in identifying fouls or challenges that might lead to a foul later on. As I have mentioned in an earlier article, a good referee should learn “to act” on the field with appropriate correct body language and gestures. “To act” is used as “to behave as if performing on the stage” in this context. Generally speaking, all that is mentioned above is called “new school refereeing”.

It is now trendy to use video clips and ask referees what the disciplinary action should be; although it is useful identifying the correct “punishment,” this approach falls short of advocating preventive refereeing which a very important tool in player management.

In the case of mass confrontation, the approach for correct referee coaching should be to identify what caused the mass confrontation during the game and not just identifying who should be yellow or red carded. Mass confrontations do not occur out of thin air. It is a buildup of events during the game or even a game between the two teams in a previous competition. Good coaching should involve going through the whole game -- if possible with a video recording -- and find out the first or very first few events that eventually led to the mass confrontation. Games where multiple red cards were used for serious foul play and/or violent conduct should be treated in the same way by the referee coach. There are always cues at the early stages of the game if detected by the referee and dealt with in the correct manner  would eventually result in not showing so many cards or termination of the game because of mass confrontation. The referee’s coach is job is to show the referee those cues that led to the loss of control of the match.

Once violent conduct or serious play occurs in a game, it is most likely that the referee will have to use his/her red card. If they do not, it is either because of their poor positioning or not having enough courage to do so. Their correct positioning can be taught and improved, but yet there is no courage pill to give to the referee. Still, just looking into that instance of play and coaching the referee for the correct decision is a necessary coaching approach but not a sufficient one.  All critical incidents should be viewed as part of the game and decisions that preceded them.

For example, in this game, after one team scored a goal from a penalty kick, hell broke loose. Eventually, the referee terminated the game.

Vitoria Vs. Bahia Abandoned After Mass Brawl

The goalkeeper didn't take the celebration lightly...

Posted by GiveMeSport on Sunday, July 29, 2018

If as a referee coach, you give feedback to the referee regarding who should have been red or yellow carded because of this series of events, you and the crew will be missing the bigger picture. Most probably there were other incidents in the game that eventually pinnacled with this mass brawl. The coach and the crew should look for those cues so that the referee crew can develop their player management skills. 

My fellow referee friends, your whistle and your cards are not sufficient to control the game of today’s soccer. Try to understand the importance of preventive officiating so that you do not end up in mass brawls or games with multiple yellow and red cards that are avoidable. 

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.

1 comment about "Mindhunter, behavioral science as applied to modern-day refereeing".
  1. R2 Dad, August 3, 2020 at 12:21 p.m.

    The mass confrontations i have seen at the amateur level were always due to a center referee tone -deaf to the heat of the match, the on-going interaction between a couple of key players that didn't get addressed at the time of an infraction (or perceived infraction). And that heat only builds unless the referee can dissipate it. 
    I though Collina was amazing because he could be invisible for 95 minutes of a match yet continue to command respect and good behavior throughout, and yet pop up at a critical moment with the right call while producing the least amount of drama. It was never about him, but players looked to him for fairness. I see Deniz Aytekin as a similar type of official. 

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