Photo Credit: Ken Kassens

Officiating team sports is complex and challenging. It involves effective positioning based on appropriate fitness, knowledge of the game, accurate perceptual judgment skills, leading to a clear picture of events (and at times potential future events), and clear knowledge and understanding of the laws or rules of the game to make accurate decisions in the context of the game.

We hear often that effective management and communication are also essential. Officials need skills to apply and sell decisions in ways that are well received by the players. How much do we know about officiating communication? Are some styles and approaches more effective than others? Can we adapt our own approaches, or should we just be ourselves?

In a recent study with a group of international rugby union referees, one of them stated, “Effective officiating is about developing your relationship with the game.” This involves clarity of decision making and communication with the participants.

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A good decision can be communicated badly and create perceptions of unfairness

Research into sports officials has sadly received considerably less attention than research into players or coaches. Understandably, most of the hundreds of research studies of sports officiating have focused on the decision-making component of officiating and only a handful have directly explored communication and management. This is rather alarming when we consider that in many sports and contexts it is argued that the quality of a referee’s communication is as important, if not more important, than the quality of the decision itself. A good decision can be communicated badly and create perceptions of unfairness, yet a poor decision that is communicated effectively can be well accepted by players.

Fortunately, we have made considerable progress in our understanding of sport officiating management and communication over the past 15 years. We know from a global investigation into soccer players’ expectations that they want officials to be competent, dependable and respectful if they are to be perceived as fair and equitable. Another program of research conducted in Australia has worked with officials, players and officiating managers across a range of team sports.

To understand what constitutes effective communication in team sports officials, 11 senior sports officiating development managers were interviewed, representing soccer, basketball, field hockey, rugby, Australian rules football and netball (a game similar to basketball). Specifically, we wanted to find out the skills, qualities and characteristics required to be an effective officiating communicator.

The results revealed four clear and inter-related themes:

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Personal Qualities

The officiating managers suggested that first and foremost officials need to be personable. We know from previous research into soccer players that what players think about your decisions is largely influenced by what they think about you. It’s best to avoid being overly friendly, but if you present qualities and characteristics that the players like, they are likely to be much more receptive to you and your decisions. If you are over-authoritative as an official, you are unlikely to be able to get the players on your side. Top officials have an awareness of how their personality influences their officiating. That allows them to adapt their style in accordance with the requirements of the game situation — like a sort of emotional intelligence that allows them to relate to players effectively. This self-awareness is crucial, and although the characteristics can be seen to be a part of the individual referee’s personality, it is the control of these, with purpose and restraint, that make for effective officiating. As such, personality should not be thought of as a fixed state, but something officials can develop.

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The best communicators are respectful and approachable

Many of the personal qualities that officiating managers identified matched the qualities that players want to see in sports officials. They suggested the best communicators are respectful and approachable. They’re the sort of individuals who will actively seek out the coaches and captains before a game to ask how their season’s going to begin to develop some rapport. Similarly, resilience and dependability were identified as key characteristics. Top referees are decisive and do not cave to the pressures of players and the crowd but stand firm behind their decisions. They also show accountability. This requires officials to be honest and admit when they’ve made a mistake. Crucially, it also means being able to provide a rationale for the decision that you’ve just made. Too often inexperienced officials ignore players who inquire about their decisions instead of simply providing their reasoning, which can prevent problems from escalating.

To make it to the top, the officiating managers identified that you need to be willing to interact with players and develop relationships to effectively manage the game. Players want officials to be decisive and resistant to pressures from other players and able to deliver decisions in a confident and calm manner. One referee manager suggested, “We talk about ‘presence.’ That includes being cooperative and professional, as opposed to overly familiar or over officious.”

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One-way Communication

Moving up the pyramid shows a key characteristic to be one-way communication. This has received the majority of the research in officiating communication and suggests that we need to effectively sell our decisions. As officials progress into professional sport this includes selling decisions to multiple audiences — not just the players but also the fans and the media, sometimes through audio and video links. As such, self-presentation skills are crucial. We need to manage the impression that we portray to others in our dialogue, paralanguage and our non-verbal communication and in our use of the whistle. As stated by one official, “Part of the communication begins in the way you actually blow your whistle, the sounds you’re making and confidence with which you do that. Similarly, the signals you are making, how clear you are to both players and spectators, and the confidence with which you actually hold yourself when you’re doing this and the talk is really only the last aspect.”

Our language should be clear, accurate and concise. Officials who are overly wordy can reflect uncertainty, so our choice of words needs to be considered. Our tone should also be neutral so that we don’t demean players and speak down to them, like a parent might to a child as this could cause resentment. Instead we should talk like an adult would to an adult, to encourage positive interactions. The VAPER model (volume, articulation, pitch, emphasis and rate) may be a useful way of examining our verbal interactions. Our volume should be loud and clear but without shouting when we are delivering messages to everyone. We should articulate our words clearly and a lower pitch will reflect confidence. You may choose to emphasize key words and our rate should be slow and consistent. Often, we find that all these VAPER factors increase when we are under pressure, creating the impression that we are losing control.

Non-verbally the key factors are establishing eye contact, using positive expressions in the face, keeping the head neutral or upright and our posture should be strong, holding ourselves tall to project confidence. We should not overuse our hands, as excessive hand gestures portray uncertainty and trying to establish control. We should not point but when needed and address players with an open hand. Finally, our movement should be slow and controlled and we should hold our ground when under pressure.

Situation Monitoring

As we become more skilled as officials we will come across a wide variety of game and player situations. There will be times when the intensity of the game rises and perhaps players start to become frustrated. Recognizing this is the starting point and taking measures to prevent situations from escalating is crucial. In basketball, using the time during free throws when you have the players’ attention is a good way of preventing actions from escalating by talking to players. As one of the officiating managers states, “It’s reading and understanding people’s faces and expressions and being good at dealing with changes in others’ body language.”

Also it is about developing an understanding from the players’ point of view about what they might be going through at the time. Sometimes it is not always black and white. There might be something that has been building up for 10 or 15 minutes.

You may know a player has been taunted by his opponent, but it is about having a bit of empathy.

It is also about interpreting players’ feelings. “You need to recognize when someone is angry, recognize when someone has done something out of frustration, as opposed to some intentional act, someone who is on a bit of a downer because they aren’t playing well, not that that is your problem as a referee at the end of the day, but you have to recognize those things and how to then communicate,” said one official.

So, the officiating managers recognize the need for officials to read and accurately judge less obvious aspects of the game, in order to interact successfully with the players.

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Skilled Interaction

We know from justice research that individuals are more likely to perceive procedures as being fair when they are given the opportunity to express their feelings. Skilled interactors allow this to take place, giving the players a voice, whether or not they will act upon the comments. As one officiating manager describes, “A good way to defuse a situation where the player might be getting a bit aggressive is a gentle smile, and a bit of ‘I understand’ attitude. That can go a long way and just being able to understand how to adjust your body language to deal with those different situations.” Similarly, another said, “While the referee is not out there to win friends, it is important to engage with those players and build respect. For too long we just expected that you would get respect. Now you have to earn it. It is a two-way street. It is an important tool to keep them on your side, because … they are more likely to understand if something does go completely wrong.”

On the other side of things, referees interacting in a poor way with the players that are frustrating them, then tension and animosity between the two teams builds up, and the referee is clueless to this actually taking place. All of a sudden it ends up in a brawl and that had nothing to do with whether or not the referee was technically correct. An official’s ability to adapt his or her interaction style during games and avoid rigid approaches to dealing with conflict was seen by officiating managers as a mark of skilled officiating communication.

Officiating leaders said they had tried and tested training methods to help their officials improve one-way communication skills, but they found the higher levels, situation monitoring and skilled interaction much harder to train. Subsequently, development of skills in reading players and situations, and responding appropriately, have become a focus for researchers in this area.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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