What’s Going On Here?

By: Dan C. Heldman (Virginia), National Clinician and National Assessor

What is the common thread between a combat soldier, police officer, long haul trucker, teacher, parent, and a referee?   Working in all of these professions, along with others of course, has something in common.  To be successful – or in some cases merely to survive – each of these persons must possess a quality we don’t often recognize as CRITICAL …….


Let’s focus on referees rather than these other folks.  Assistant referees and 4th officials will also find this topic useful but, for referees, it is crucial.

There are four types of awareness that all referees must cultivate.  Because we like finding ways to help remember things, I’m going to call these types “The 4 Ss of Awareness”:  Spatial, Situational, Strategic, and Self.

Spatial awareness involves knowledge about your physical surroundings and, just as important, your orientation in that environment.  Where are you in relation to such important field elements as the touchlines, the penalty area, the attacking/middle/defending thirds?  Where are the benches?  What about the players —  particularly the team leaders, the highly skilled forwards, the midfield distributors, the “thug”?  Where exactly is your lead AR?  In your field of view while looking across play?  No?  Why not?

Do you have a desk, office, workbench, toolbox, etc. which you have laid out in a certain way?  Why?  Probably because you can reach out and get what you need with a minimum of movement and in less time than if you had to look around for the item.  You know where that hammer, pen, stapler, 3/4 inch lugnut, or file of last year’s receipts is.  This is a form of spatial awareness.

When there is a lull in play and you want to locate Blue #3 because he has been in Red #24’s face for the last 10 minutes, you don’t want to waste time searching the field because lulls don’t last.  You want to do a quick survey of the field and make eye contact with each of your fellow officials.  You want to know if the teamside AR has had to spend more time closer to the Red coach to maintain bench control.  You want to know with a minimum of fuss and delay whether the foul you just whistled was inside or outside the penalty area.  All of these involve spatial awareness.

Situational awareness builds on knowledge of your surroundings.  Space is physical, situations are events.  What is going on in your environment?  Are these physical events such as an approaching storm (flash of lightning, some thunder)?  Are they human events such as a trip or a hand/ball contact?  Is the event another in a pattern or is it unique?  Once or recurring?

More importantly, what does this specific event occurring in this specific environment mean to you?  In other words, how will/could it impact you?  Not everything that happens on or off the field during a match actually affects you or, if it does in some theoretical sense, the impact is minimal.  It’s the “big” events (also called “moments of truth”) that can seriously affect you (in fact, that’s one of the ways it becomes a moment of truth).  How can you recognize the big ones if you are not aware of them happening or you haven’t tracked their predecessor events?

We come now to strategic awareness.  This is where you determine the “meaning” of events.  How will cautioning Blue #16 affect his future play?  What will be the effect of  applying advantage to this specific foul by these specific players at this specific location and time?  What will be the effect of not applying advantage?  The essential focus of strategic awareness is determining the consequences and how those consequences might work to your advantage.  “Advantage” in this context is not about stopping play or allowing it to continue – that’s a function of applying the Law properly.  What is at issue here is similar to what we would call “threat assessment” where you are the one threatened.

Threat assessment can be positive, negative, or neutral.  A positive assessment means that the likely strategic result of this event (situational) happening in this environment (spatial) will be to your advantage.  A negative assessment means that it could affect you adversely.  “Positive” and “negative,” of course, come in various strengths.

The fourth “S” is self awareness.  You are aware of space, events, and strategic consequences but, so what?  The ultimate issue is what you do about them to bend their strategic consequences toward making them more positive or, alternately, less negative.  In other words, you shape outcomes.  However, this can only be done within the range of your skills, knowledge, and experience.  More importantly, how well do you know what your skills, knowledge, and experience are?  You can’t use what you don’t know you have.

We have all experienced situations in which we have tried an approach – personal, psychological, cultural, linguistic – and discovered that we just don’t have the ability to “pull it off.”  We may be in awe of those who can (just as they may be in awe of some ability we have), but it doesn’t change the fact that we must know what tools we have that work for us because we are comfortable using them.  We must also know the circumstances in which the tool at issue works, why it works, and the personal effort it may take to use that tool.  It may be something that we can use … once, but not twice.  It may be something that works only if we have had a chance to use it frequently (i.e., it isn’t rusty).  It may be something that we are just learning how to use and our skill is hesitant enough that we had better not try it out in a really serious situation.

For what purpose are we trying to shape events?  Simple to answer, but not so simple to implement because the answer depends on another element of self awareness – namely, why are we there and what are we trying to accomplish?  What are our objectives in the match?  We are not faceless, emotionless robots (no matter what some may argue should be our stance).  We want and need to influence events toward our greater happiness.  Now we just have to decide what makes us happy.

Underlying every rule or law of the game are the following ultimate objectives: safety of the players, fairness of play, enjoyment of the participants, safeguarding opportunities for the display of skills, and maintaining the honor of the sport.  These should be the objectives that make you happy.  Anything which endangers any of these objectives should make us unhappy.  Either way, these outcomes are what we are trying to shape through our spatial, situational, strategic, and self awareness.

As a result of many years refereeing at most competitive levels, evaluating referee performance, spending many hours training referees, and talking with many hundreds of officials about their experiences, I am convinced that most unhappy game results (from the referee’s point of view) can ultimately be traced to ignorance or incorrect information about one or more of these four elements of awareness.  Properly applying each of the 4 Ss leads to the fifth S – Success.