Risk Communication for the Soccer Referee

By Rodney Kenney, NISOA National Assessor, Florida

Risk communication can be defined as communication that takes place during controversial situations, involving high stress and low trust scenarios.  I would venture to say that refereeing a soccer game meets that definition.

In most games the players are not only mentally stressed but also physically stressed. Few players, coaches and spectators trust the referee to make the correct decision in a game. Almost all the decisions a referee makes are controversial for at least half the players on the field.  What we have then is one referee trying to interact positively with, 22 players on the field, two teams’ benches on the sideline, and with our assistants and alternate official. This is no small feat, considering the field is usually 120 yards long and 76 yards wide, and the game has no time outs for 45 minutes at a time.

The dynamics of the game require split second decisions involving accurate visual and verbal communication with the players, assistants and benches to maintain a smooth flow and control of the game.

First let us review some risk communication principles that apply to soccer referees based on the literature from Dr. Vincent Covello, of the Center for Risk Communication.

The “Mental Noise Theory” says, a person who is upset and under stress has difficulty hearing and processing information. Mental noise can reduce the ability to process communication up to 80%. Therefore we must, limit the number of messages, the length of our communication, and repeat the message a number of times. An example of how mental noise affects the players’ ability to process messages is at the taking of a free kick close to goal. When the referee has told the player to wait for the whistle before taking the free kick, the player the referee just told to wait for the whistle, takes the kick before the referee moves the wall back and signals. The player is not just being disobedient; they didn’t process what the referee said because of the mental noise. When players are distracted by the mental noise, the referee must repeat the message a number of times, and even give them some visual clues such as in this case showing and pointing to the whistle, and asking for a response either verbally or visually by shaking their head.

The “Risk Perception Theory” says, what is perceived as real is real. The factors, which affect perception, are trust, benefit, voluntary control, and fairness. One example of loss of trust, is when the referee blows the whistle for an offside that the assistant did not flag. From that point on, the players will not trust the assistant and the assistant’s calls will be questioned for the rest of the game. The players must also believe that the referee being there is benefiting them. Referees must make the calls that protect the players, respond positively to player’s complaints, and the referees must act like they care about the players and the game.

The “Trust Determination Theory” says, the goal of risk communication is to earn trust and gain credibility. The time to build trust and credibility is before the game begins, by looking sharp, acting professional, spending equal time with both teams, and making only positive comments to the players and coaches. During the game referees can build trust and credibility by taking action when required, make signals quickly and firmly, have good communication between referee an assistants, punishing infringements of the rules equally for both teams and admitting mistakes.

The “Negative Dominance Theory” says, people who are upset tend to think negatively. One negative = three positives. To get players to react positively, you must first eliminate your negative words such as no, not, can’t, don’t, never, nothing, and none. Give three times the positive feedback as negative and turn negative statements into positive statements. Some examples are; changing the statement “if you make another bad tackle like that I am going to throw you out” to “continued tackles like that will require a higher level of action on my part”. Changing the statement “you can’t wear that cast like that” to “if you properly pad that cast you will be allowed to wear it”. These may seem like small things but they all add up to a more positive outcome to the game.

The referee has three means to communicate during the game.  We will look at all these forms of communications and how we can apply some risk communication principles too reduce conflicts and misunderstanding on and off the field.

Fortunately, we have devised a set of visual signals that referees can use to communicate their decisions to the players on the field, even if the players are speaking different languages. These visual signals can be found in “The NCAA Men’s and Women’s Soccer Rule Book” and the “NFHS Soccer Rules Book.”  The referees and assistants adherence to these signals is vital to accurately communicating the referees’ decisions to everyone involved in the game. Altering these signals and using negative or threatening body language can lead to loss of control and confrontation with the players.

The referee also has the whistle to start and stop the game, but the whistle can communicate so much more than that. Without even saying a word, the length and amplitude of the whistle can tell the players the seriousness the referee places on the foul or infringement. This “whistle talk” along with a firm hand signal can replace the spoken word, which allows the referee to forgo a verbal confrontation with the players. During the game the whistle’s value, as a communication tool, cannot be overstated. It allows the referee to communicate negative feelings without raising their voice and using negative words. The whistle should only be used when absolutely necessary.  Using the whistle unnecessarily only adds to the mental noise and causes it to loose its effectiveness as a communication tool.

The riskiest type of communication is the verbal. The choice of words, delivery and timing all come together to put the referee in a positive or negative position depending on the verbal skills of the referee. This is where the understanding of the risk communication theories are essential.

The choice of words such as boy, son, sweetheart, or darling, although not negative, are inappropriate because the players see those words as degrading. The use of foul language is also inappropriate because it lowers the referees standing as a professional, which leads to loss of trust. Once referees uses foul language they will now find it hard to sanction a player for that offence. Using the word “never” limits the referee’s options during the game. Telling the captains at the coin toss to never run into the goalkeeper, never tackle from behind, or never use foul language, will ignite a confrontation during the game, if the referee chose not to punish those offences. The opposing team will remind the referee of their statement before the game, and the referee will loose credibility.

The referees’ delivery can spark hostility just by the tone of their voice or the volume they use. To get the most out of their communications referees must be in control of their emotions at all times. Deliver verbal communication in a calm voice and be direct and non-punishing. Yelling at a player puts them on the defensive, which makes positive communications even more difficult.

Timing is also essential if the referee wants to be heard and understood. Any conversation with a player during the run of play will most likely be ignored

because of the mental noise that was described earlier. A good time to communicate is during a stoppage of play. If, at a stoppage of play, the referees find themselves in an adversarial situation with the players, the best way to end it is to restart play quickly. This forces the players to get back into the game and leave the referees alone. There may be a time when slowing the game down at a stoppage could help maintain control. At this time a verbal warning or a caution with some slow and calming words will let the players catch their breath and calm down, before restarting again. Saying the right thing at this time is crucial. Only use positive talk, be careful not to say something negative or give a player an ultimatum from which there is no retreat on your part, because this could start a confrontation that could end badly for you and the player.

All referees must be aware of the verbal abuse players; coaches and spectators are going to use to insult them during and after a game. These comments are meant to make referees lose concentration, and to get them upset. One of the principles of risk communication is anticipating ahead of time what questions will be asked or what might be said. If the referee knows that these comments from players or coaches are not original and not aimed at them personally, then they can better accept them for what they are, just a way to get the referee into an argument. Verbal sparring with someone whose only goal is to make the referee look bad is not productive, and will only lessen the creditability of the referee. The referee being right or wrong is not the issue in such debates.

The following are a number of remarks that are leveled at referees during and after the game:

“Ref, is this your first game?”

“Are you watching the same game as the rest of us?”

“You’re clueless ref!”

“You need to go back to ref school!”

“Ref how could you miss that!”

“You are the worst ref we’ve ever had!”

“Did your mother dress you this morning?”

“Are you ever going to call a foul for us?”

“How much did they pay you ref?”

“I hope they’re not paying you for this game!”

“I’m going to get you after the game!”


“Thanks for losing the game for us ref!”

“You can’t be serious!”

“You think this whole thing is funny!”

“I never saw a hat that could referee!” (For those who wear hats)

“You need to get your glasses checked!” (For those who wear glasses)

“You’re too white!” (For those who are white)

“You don’t like us because we’re (racial group)!”

“I’ve got that on tape!”

“You’ll never ref another one of our games!”

“Ref! Are you in there?” (For those who wear sunglasses)

And my favorite, “I hope, when you go home, your mother comes out from under the front porch and bites you on the leg!”  (Red card for creativity?)

The above are only the clean comments. There are many that are foul and more abusive. All of these are said, at one time or another, to new and experienced referees alike, because they are referees, not because of who they are personally. Many referees hear too much, but listen too little. They think any comment from players is meant as an affront to their refereeing ability. Referees are only human and make mistakes. When the referee makes a mistake they must accept responsibility and not overreact to the players comments about those mistakes. There are times when the referee is either allowing too much physical play or calling the game too tightly. At those times if the referee is receptive to the players’ comments about how the game is being refereed, and not take offense to the comments, they can adjust their refereeing to meet the players’ expectations.

Again, the key is to be prepared, and not be gamed into a conversation that makes the referee look unprofessional. Remember, as a referee; “Anything you say can and will be used against you”.  In many cases after the game, the best last word could be no word at all. No comment will keep you from being misquoted or saying something, in the heat of the moment, you wished you hadn’t said.

I hope with this information, you can better prepare yourselves for the risk you undertake every time you step on the field and communicate with those involved in the game.