The Memories & Spirit of the Game, as only Ken Aston could teach it...
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-= Some thoughts on the Art of the Referee ... =-
Some thoughts on the Art of the Referee
by Mike "Skipper" Goblet
"Cogito ergo Arbitro - I think therefore Umpire"
Member of the Masters of Mayhem

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Referees need to be able to apply laws, not parrot them. More importantly, referees need to know both when and why to apply them. Referees who, after their first year, work only by the letter of the Laws and are safety-wired on auto-whistle are of no use to the players, coaches, spectators, or their fellow referees. They do not learn. They do not grow. They hurt the game. They may be referees for twenty years, but their experience is that of one year repeated twenty times.

Reading play and players is a skill, perhaps an art, at once easy and difficult to master. I'm a reasonably good instructor, yet I can only point out the path. I can't travel that road; that journey belongs to the individual. To develop those skills you must develop sufficient experience to move beyond the letter of the Laws. You have to understand the very concept of the game and the purpose of it's Laws.

In greatest simplicity, the concept of the game is that it is a hard, physical contest to be played between two teams, and that the teams should have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills without unfair interference by their opponents. The Laws define how the game is to be played, and describe examples of unfair play. The referee's original place in this was to settle disagreements between players. Players were expected act within the confines of the Laws. Most still do, fouling in the conduct of play rather than in an attempt to foul their opponent. In today's game, the referee is to enforce the Laws, yet must do so through man- and match- management skills and not through literal application of the letter of the Law.

Soccer is exceptionally physical. Its players must be allowed to display their skills in an aggressive manner when this behavior does not place an opponent at a disadvantage by unfair means. It is the duty of players to develop both in skill and physical fitness. Often unskilled and physically unfit players are awarded free kicks when fairly challenged by skilled and fit players. Is this the result of the referee not understanding the basic nature of the game?

For an act to be worth punishing, putting aside misconduct, I believe the act must truly affect play AND not be the result of true 50/50 play. Further, trifling, doubtful and advantage must be considered within the enormous amount of time allotted us to form a decision.

Folks continually complain about not having a library of "authoritative" interpretations and guidance. They cried they were without practical guidance although Additional Instructions Regarding the Laws of the Game was included in their annual copy of the LOTG through 1996 (and is available again). They cried upon learning that some people had access to certain Memoranda or Circulars. They bemoaned not having access to Questions and Answers on the Laws of the Game (which is now available). They continue to do so though they have access to Advice to Referees.

These, and similar publications, have always been available to those who sought them. For referees affiliated with the USSF, virtually everything is available in the Referee section of the Federation web site.

The ironic thing about publications is that they can't make a referee even one iota better. A walking encyclopedia of the Laws and their interpretation often is not a good referee, while a fellow with an entry-level knowledge can be a very good to great referee. The acquisition of knowledge is vital part of referee growth. It is, however, lower down in the scale of importance than the skills of mechanics, attention to detail, man- & match- management, concentration, and a devotion to protect players' health and safety. These skills must be blended together and cemented by courage.

A referee must be a person of deep introspection. Constant, objective evaluation of their role and their impact on the game is vital. Truly great referees first developed knowledge of self and aspired to perfect their skills to offer what the game demands of them. They possess the humility to accept that they are not to be the center of attraction. They accept that they are to insert ourselves into the game only as often as the game demands it.

The skills just mentioned really don't rely on the Laws of the Game. They rely on the referee accepting personal responsibility to develop the intangible skills mentioned for their growth and improved service to the game. I suggest many referees are unwilling to spend the time necessary to learn their part in the game and develop the skills needed to play that part. Too many curse the darkness rather than become light bearers.

If referees feel their State does not provide adequate instruction or clinics, where is the record of strident and continual demand that their State fulfill it's responsibility? Where are the groups of 3 to 5 referees who attend high level matches to observe that referee's decisions and the result of those decisions, then invite the referee team out for a cool, adult beverage over which they might discuss the match? Where is the drive to visit other states' clinics?

Is weeping and the gnashing of teeth over the seeming inability of skilled officials to identify obvious fouls righteous indignation? Or is such behavior a self-serving pat on the back due the weeping tooth-gnasher believing they are better able to identify fouls than their colleagues on the field?

Some will not seek to develop an understanding of the nature of the game. They hurt the game. They turn players and observers against flow. They stifle development of a player's ability to play through contact. They establish and fortify in player's and observer's minds the belief that all contact is foul. They create an atmosphere that can make the next match a referee's game from hell. Worst of all, they affix blame on everyone else, including both other referees and players.

Frankly, I feel such folks should find another field of endeavor.

Back to the point in discussion. It is the referee's responsibility to observe players, to evaluate their actions, and to form an opinion as to whether their actions unfairly affect play. They then decide whether some action must be taken to set right the illegal act. It is easy to be just - justice only requires that a prescribed response be made when proof of injustice exists. It is far more difficult to ensure that the right thing is done. Doing the right thing may be in conflict with doing the just thing.

How does the referee learn to do the right thing? The only way I know is through constant study of all aspects of his art, including the Laws, mechanics, players' actions and reactions, concentration, and the courage that is vital to the employment of these skills. The referee is always involved in a balancing act involving flow and control. Maintaining this balance may require bending of the Laws beyond a comfortable point. Strangely enough, this bending often leads to a strengthening of the Laws, not the weakening. This phenomena results from the player's appreciation of the referee's knowledge of the game and his willingness to allow them to play while protecting players' health and safety. They respond to the referee because they trust his judgment.

The best insight on gaining and maintaining balance is simple:

Never sacrifice control on the altar of flow.



Yet should flow be sacrificed on the altar of comfort? Does a referee have a right to "comfort" derived from textbook officiating eschewing the real work needed to play their part?

When I read comments savaging other referees, or complaining that their "bad example" in not calling fouls negatively affects the game at lower levels, my reaction is not positive. That position absolves the referee in that "lower level" match from their responsibility to make their mark on that match and ensure proper control. My opinion is assuredly negative when comments come from officials who supervise referees.

Ignorance of playing styles and a lack of comfort with vigorous physical contact is understandable when first encountered; it is almost unforgivable after a referee has encountered such situations many times. When referee supervisors complain openly, yet practically do nothing to correct perceived problems, they prove to me their total unsuitability for such a position.


You'll get no black and white instructions on what to do in all given situations. Even the best advice may not be sufficient when you encounter certain player actions. Each referee's response must be based upon a decision whether their action will be of benefit to the game, not merely whether it is supported by the written law. You and I are appointed to manage the players and the match to a successful conclusion. We must, I repeat must, do this by inserting ourselves only when truly necessary.

A final, simple, thought. Before inserting yourself, observe the full impact of a foul action upon the play or player. Where the foul does not directly affect the play or the player - whether they flinch or do not - keep the whistle down. Your understanding of this precept will benefit that specific match, and will contribute to an overall strengthening and growth of this beautiful game.

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