Conflict Management

By: John Van deVaarst, NISOA  Associate Director; NISOA Director of Instruction, NISOA Hall of Fame, New Jersey

The issue of Conflict Management is an important one for both intercollegiate and interscholastic soccer referees. If you have been refereeing for a while, you should be aware that over time the game participants seem to be challenging the referee’s authority more and more.  You may also notice that when you approach a player for a behavioral problem, it’s common for athletes to try to shift the blame away from themselves by claiming: “It’s not my fault” or “That was not a foul.” Conflict comes in as a difference of opinion between your discretionary judgment and the participant’s opinion.  It’s important for the referee to deal with this attitude promptly and effectively.

Dealing with conflict is just one more skill that a successful referee needs to master.

In past years, as a Referee it was often enough to know the soccer rules, to be fit, and to have the courage to go out and referee the game.  Now, managing the behavior of players, coaches, and other team personnel is more challenging. Referees must recognize and develop effective methods of dealing with conflict in positive ways.

The fact that each referee has a different personality and refereeing style often means that the methods of dealing with conflict may well differ in each situation. However, there are a number of basics that will help improve your handling of conflict.

In the past we learned that one approach to dealing with conflict was by using progressive discipline. A quiet word first, then a verbal warning, then a caution, and finally – if all else failed – an ejection.  Today, this more traditional method may not work as often as we’d like.

The referee also needs to try to use newer, additional techniques to handle conflict problems that need to be resolved in the game.  If not, fouls, retaliation, and related problems may rapidly increase. Here are some suggestions for you to try.

Control negative comments.

The first way is to try to control negative comments as they are made. That means controlling negative comments from the participants before they affect others.  Ignoring them will not always work.  For example, a coach’s negative comments can easily be heard by the Assistant Referee on the bench side.  To control these, a civil, professional comment without turning from the play to let the coach know that you heard the negative comment can often defuse a problem.

You need to do this in a way to defuse, not worsen, the situation.  Choose your words carefully.  Do not invite a response or a debate by posing your words as question or in a way that invites a response.  In a debate, the coach may well be the victor.

Focus on the current situation.

When you talk to a participant, focus on the current situation.  Do not debate what happened earlier in the game. Instead keep whatever remarks you make to the specific negative comment(s) made by the participant.  Long debates are never a positive situation for the referee. Irrelevant discussions just divert your attention away from the problem that needs to be solved quickly now.

Limit your own remarks to a few words.

Make sure you limit your own remarks to a few words that are factual and that address the issue.  Again, long debates never work for the officials. Avoid extending your remarks beyond what is absolutely necessary to control the problem and the individual(s) concerned, to shut off any further exchange, and to end the short exchange.

If the problem is a judgment call, do not discuss it. Rather, get the game restarted quickly.

Any question or comment about a call or action you’ve taken that is based on your discretionary judgment should not be responded to. If the problem is a judgment call, do not discuss it.  Rather, address the negative comment made, move away, and get the game restarted as soon as possible.  The sooner play is restarted, the better for all concerned. Restarting play as rapidly as possible will help concentrate the attention of all participants on the play, and not upon the complaint that was presented by the comment.

Be decisive, not “wishy-washy.”

Act and remain assertive and decisive at all times, Even if you do decide to change a call before restarting play, never let it appear that a participant argued you into it. If you do reverse your call, do so quickly and with the least possible delay. Unless the nature of the situation absolutely requires it, you need not offer any explanation for a decision.

Understand that most experienced Referees advise against changing a call once made, unless absolutely convinced that the change is needed to preserve the integrity of the game. The need to change a call should be a very rare occurrence in your refereeing. Remember, most of your calls rely on your opinion and discretionary judgment.  These will often be debatable in the minds of some participants.  However, your discretionary judgment is recognized by the rules to be final. Therefore, in almost every instance it is better for the game you to move play along and to stick with your initial decision.


So to summarize consider these suggestions: 1. Control negative comments, 2. Focus on the current situation, 3. Limit your remarks to a few words, 4. If the problem is a judgment call do not discuss it and get the game restarted quickly, and 5. be decisive not  “wishy-washy.”

As a Referee, you must get past the emotions of the moment and learn how to welcome the opportunity to demonstrate people-management abilities

Do try these techniques when you are faced with a conflict that cannot be ignored if you are to retain control over a game. You should find that as you improve your use of these, your game control will improve.

You will be challenged during a game more often today than in the past.  You must deal with this type of behavior. As the referee, you must get past the emotions of the moment and learn to welcome the opportunity to acquire and demonstrate people-management abilities that resolve behavior conflicts.

Don’t hesitate to try to develop new and perhaps unfamiliar skills and techniques that will improve your refereeing.  As you have the opportunity watch, and talk with, other officials to learn how they handle conflict on the field.  These can be important lessons from which you can benefit.