The three pillars of refereeing

There are three pillars of officiating through which one could rise to the top. Physical, cognitive, and psychological. I would say that the last two are vital for all officials in all sports but are the areas that are most ignored for testing and development.  For example, for a soccer official endurance, speed, agility and sprinting power are all necessary physical attributes. But the same could not be said for a tennis umpire or a volleyball referee. On the other hand, officials in nearly all sports do need similar cognitive and psychological skills. 

In the corporate world, various psychometric tests are used for pre-employment selection. These tests are designed to measure candidates' suitability for a role based on the required personality characteristics and aptitude. In selecting soccer officials for elite positions, the only test carried out is as mentioned above is the physical test. This article stresses the need to develop and utilize tests for the other two pillars.

Now let us concentrate on soccer officials.

In a soccer game, the officials use their physical attributes like endurance, speed, agility etc. throughout the game. It is a known fact that their deteriorating physical performance towards the end of the game effect their mental processes. Throughout the game, the officials must make decisions based on a cycle of perception, decision making and execution. The first two involves the use of cognitive functions like perception, access to memory and problem solving. The last one – execution - uses only motor skills like using your arm to show a card, blowing a whistle etc. The whole cycle of the process is under the conscious or subconscious control of emotions like stress, anxiety, anger etc. as well as personality traits like leadership and courage. They are all under the psychological pillar.  Let me apologize from the readers any mistakes in the use of terminology that is in the last two pillars since I am not a psychologist even though I studied some cognitive science years ago. 

  1. Physical attributes

These attributes can easily be tested and if needed developed. There are norms that FIFA uses that have been developed by sports scientists. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, an endurance test called Cooper’s test (distance covered in 12 minutes) along with speed tests (50, 100 and 400 meters) and staggered run tests were used to test for fitness. Soon sports scientists realized that these tests did not adequately measure the physical performance of a soccer official during a real game. So now the official fitness test for soccer referees consists of two tests. Test 1, Repeated Sprint Ability measures the referee’s ability to perform repeated sprints over 40m. Test 2, Interval Test, evaluates the referee’s capacity to perform a series of high-speed runs over 75 meters interspersed with 25-meter walking intervals. Some confederations might apply other tests like the Yo-Yo test to its elite officials. 

There are now technical gadgets that can track all the physical qualities of the referee during a game as well as tracking his/her position on the field with details like how far he/she was from the foul. So, one cannot hide any physical deficiency – endurance, speed, sprinting power etc. from the tracking systems. Needless to say, there is an academic discipline – sports science – dedicated to improving and developing physical deficiencies. 

As far as testing, monitoring, and developing the physical features of a soccer referee there are not too many stones unturned. There are hundreds of articles dedicated to this feature as well as ongoing research and development projects for monitoring the physical features of a soccer referee. 

  1. Cognitive Skills

As said earlier, a soccer referee needs to first perceive an incident, to make a decision and to execute the decision. In the perception phase the referee uses various visual and audio cues to perceive. During this phase there might be various distractions to perceive the incident correctly. Once the referee perceives the incident, he/she uses both semantic and episodic memory to make a decision. The letter of the LOTG as well as various FIFA considerations are all stored in semantic memory, whereas similar real-life incidents or video clips used for training are stored in the episodic memory. In a very limited amount of time, the referee must reach a decision and that is where experience – stored memory – helps. Once a decision has been made, the execution of the decision does not require any cognitive skills but rather correct motor skills which are also retrieved from memory. 

Clearly during a game, a referee is presented with multiple visual cues. Sometimes he/she has to identify a very minute visual detail – like who played the ball last – in a very dynamic environment while other visual data are distracting the official. Sometimes he/she must rely on peripheral visual data rather than central (focused) visual data. 

Yet another cognitive skill sought by soccer officials is the ability to concentrate for an extended period. 

I can name many other perceptual and cognitive skills that are required by soccer referees. 

For the perception phase different neuropsychological tests can be utilized to understand a subject’s ability to perceive visual details, to withstand visual distraction, to concentrate and many other cognitive skills that I did not list. There are already some tests to measure these skills, like the STROOP test for Selective Attention Theory, Concentration tests and others. Many others could also be designed utilizing Cognitive Psychologists. 

  1. Psychological Traits

During the game, the officials will require some positive personality traits, or their performance will negatively be impacted by the lack of other traits. Leadership, decisiveness (assertiveness), courage are personality traits that are sought in elite referees. Some could be improved (learned) but some are personality traits that come with your genes. For example, it is very difficult for an introverted person to be successful in refereeing if not impossible. 

On the other hand, a good soccer referee should minimize the impact of stress, control anxiety, manage anger and show empathy towards the other stakeholders of the game. All of those traits have some sort of psychometric tests to see their impact on the referee.

For example, in the '90s when I was the head of refereeing for the Turkish FA we gave a Leadership test to our professional referees. The multiple-choice test had no questions relating to the game. At the end, the highest grade was obtained by one of our best FIFA referees in those years. The lowest grade was obtained by a lower ranked or maybe the lowest ranked referee for the professional leagues. If we had given this test before, we moved them to the pro ranks maybe, we did not have to spend resources for that lowest ranked referee. 

The bottom line is this: The refereeing organizations should utilize neurophysiological and psychometric tests along with physical fitness tests to identify the elite referees. When corporations are hiring individuals for a specific job, they utilize these tests frequently to choose the best fit for the job. The most talented referees will excel in all kinds of related tests. With natural selection of observing them during games you will still end up with best referees but on the way you might be  spending unnecessary resources who would not do well on such neurophysiological and psychometric tests. 

When I mentioned this concept during a FIFA seminar in 2000 for FIFA Referee Instructors in Munich, I was nearly booed for making such a radical suggestion. Let us not forget that I was the youngest and most probably the only non-FIFA referee from Turkey in that referee instructors meeting. Most probably even if I said two plus two is four, I will still be publicly criticized. After 21 years, I hope that I will now have some supporters for the implementation of my radical idea for the three pillars of soccer officiating.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet.g@thegameplanners.com) is a partner with The Game Planners, LLC and the former Secretary General and Chief Soccer Officer of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as a 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.

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