On the Field of Play…
Founder of Ken Aston Referee Society
Referee decision-making during a game, is a fascinating and fraught
complex area. Referees will approach, and deal with decision-making in
their own individual ways, and will often rely on a combination of
intuition and Law facts concerning play. Some Referees are capable of
making instant decisions, whilst others do not like making important
decisions without having first weighed up in their minds all the
relevant information. Experienced Referees rely on their 'gut instinct',
and their own automatic conscious or unconscious reactions when making
judgments. Decisions made using instinct are very often proved to be
correct. Referees will make hundreds (and probably thousands) of
decisions during every game. Each decision must be calculated in the
very smallest fraction of time. The human mind is capable of making this
quantity of decisions automatically without having to think about the
rational behind each conclusion.
"Each situation that a Referee judges must be made as if it is the first
decision that he has made in the match. Referees must not carry any
baggage from the past."
(Quote from Dutch FIFA Referee Jan Wegereef)
Some self-assistance and self-preparation before each game will
undoubtedly help the Referee in:
(a) Making consistent decisions, and
(b) Lessening the chances of the Referee becoming
anxious because he is not quite sure which way to give a decision
(c) Helping the Referee to NOT react in instances where a decision is
This article offers an insight into the process of decision-making by
Referees on the field of play. It also explores psychological
preparatory work that the Referee can employ with himself to help his
decision making capability - particularly in those situations where it
is impossible for the Referee to make a correct decision, or where a
decision is equally applicable to both teams at the same time! This
article does not cover disciplinary decision-making (for example, to
caution a player or not)? - But concentrates mainly on the play action
of the game, and how the Referee controls that action by the application
(and interpretation) of the Laws.
There are three main types of decision that a Referee will need to take
during a game.
1. Statutory decisions:
(The Laws of the Game)
2. Interpretation decisions:
(How the Referee interprets the Laws)
3. Impossible decisions:
(A 'best guess' or 'benefit-of-the-doubt' or
1. Statutory decisions
- Are judgments based on the Laws of the Game - i.e. decisions
that the Referee must make as prescribed to him by the Laws?
Statutory examples are:
(i) A player who strikes another player must be
(ii) A throw-in is the proper restart when the ball has
traveled wholly over the touchline.
(iii) If the Referee has awarded a goal, he cannot
disallow that goal if play has been restarted.
(iv) A goal cannot be scored direct from an indirect
(v) A player cannot be offside if he receives the ball
direct from a goal kick.
Making statutory decisions depends greatly on the Referee's knowledge of
the Laws and keeping abreast with Law-change developments during his
career. Statutory decisions are the easiest to make - because the
Referee knows (or should know) beforehand, exactly which punishment or
conclusion or outcome to apply. Referees should endeavor to refresh
their memory of the Laws on a regular basis. It is very much like
passing and studying for your vehicle driving test - when you first pass
this test, the rules and situations concerning driving are easily
remembered, but as time wears on, facts that once seemed perfectly clear
or situations that were reacted to automatically, suddenly become
muddied in the memory.
Creating an aide-memoir can help a Referee to remember any particular
problems that he has encountered in previous games. Most of the Laws are
easily remembered, and a Referee will cope with those automatically -
but there are numerous other parts of the Laws that a Referee will never
automatically remember when officiating at the beginning of his career.
By simply listing down those vague Law areas on a piece of paper, and
reading them before each game, the Referee will build up his knowledge
of the Laws - which in time, he will be able to eliminate from his
Having Refereed for some years, I still use my aide-memoir listing to
remind me of any ultra-vague interpretations - and am still learning
from each game. Refereeing is a life-long apprenticeship of constant
learning, interpreting and application.
Some of my very first aide-memoir listings included:
"When a free kick is taken inside the penalty area by the
defending team, the ball has to come outside of the penalty area before
it comes into play, and before another player can touch it."
I clearly remember in one of my first games, a goalkeeper taking a free
kick inside his own penalty area very near the penalty mark, tapping the
ball to a colleague who continued on with play. As a new Referee, I
could not instantly remember whether I should have allowed play to
continue or not? If I had been allowed a few moments in the game to
think about the correct decision, I would have stopped play, and asked
the players to re-take the kick. In my mind I knew the correct
application of the Law, but I just needed a few moments to think about
it. The 'moral' of this is – is that a Referee does not get "a few
moments to think about it" - he is expected to make an instant decision
- and he can only do this by experience and by recognizing his
weaknesses, and by constantly strengthening his understanding of the
Of course, I can now know make this correct decision automatically,
without having to think about it - but this is just one example that I
listed on my early aide-memoirs. It was not very long before I crossed
this one out, and replaced it with many others.
2. Interpretation decisions:
Football is a sport that allows its Referees a great deal of
flexibility in interpreting and applying the Laws subjectively.
Albeit that Referees are trained to be consistent in their application
of the Laws - they are written in such a way, that the individualism of
each Referee is allowed to flourish and enhance the game of football.
Each Referee will have his own style, his own limits, and his own
tolerance levels. This flexibility adds to the uncertainty,
unpredictability and excitement envisaged in the game worldwide. The
Laws allow both the Referee and Football, to retain their human
characteristics. Referees like the dual role of 'peace keeper' and
'adaptability'. This allows Referee characters to develop - this in
turn, enhances the match excitement further.
Interpreting the Laws is a skill gleaned from both experience, and by
interacting with fellow Referees. Learning the Laws by rout and passing
the Referees' exam is the easy bit. The hard part is applying the Law
interpretations and dealing with man-management on the field of play.
Common sense and Law interpretation used fairly and correctly identifies
a good Referee from a bad Referee.
Interpretation examples are:
(i) Should a player who fouls another player always be
(ii) Is the attacking player standing in an offside
position, actively involved with play?
(iii) Was the tackle a completely accidental tangling
of the players’ legs?
(iv) Was the handball intentional?
(v) Can a Referee drop the ball to the goalkeeper
The quickest way for a new Referee to learn Law interpretation
skills, is to:
(a) Officiate in as many games as possible, and learn
(b) Interact with Referee colleagues. e.g. by joining
and participating in Referee Societies, and reading Refereeing material.
(c) Learn by watching as many games as possible.
A new Referee who does none of
the above, will undoubtedly take much longer to build up his
interpretation and interpersonal skills. A Referee who does all the
above, will swiftly improve his skills, and will quickly become
acceptable within the footballing community.
3. Impossible decisions:
There will be many occasions in every game, where it will be impossible
for the Referee to make a correct decision. For example, when the
unsighted Referee is 60 yards away, and the ball quickly ricochets out
of a ruck of players and goes out for a throw-in.
Throw-in to the attacking team, or throw-in to the defending team?
Another example........Following a challenge for the ball between an
attacker and a defender on the edge of the penalty area, the ball was
seen to squirm off one of the players and deflects towards a second
attacker who is standing in an offside position near the penalty spot.
Both of the players were taking a kick at the ball at the same time
whilst making the challenge. In reality the defender made the last
contact with the ball, a fraction of a second after the attacker. The
Referee who is still catching up with play and is on the halfway line
(50 yards away) does not have a clear view of the incident, but
nevertheless needs to make a decision to either allow play to continue,
or to stop play for offside. Should the Referee allow play to continue,
or should he penalize the offside attacker for being in an offside
position when the ball was deflected (touched) to him buy a colleague?
(This question assumes that the Assistant Referee or Club Linesman is
unable to help the Referee.)
When a Refereeing decision is required during a game - making a bad
decision is better than making an unsure decision - and making a bad
decision is certainly better than making no decision at all.
There will also be moments in every game when both teams are equally
entitled to the decision. For example..... Whilst making a tackle to
gain possession of the ball near the goal line - both the attacker and
the defender touch the ball simultaneously before it crosses the goal
line. Goal kick or corner kick?
During on-the-field impossible decision type incidents, when the Referee
believes that both sets of players are as ‘guilty’ as each other, the
option of a 'dropped ball' is usually an accepted method - so long as
the dropped ball is not too near one of the goals or involves a
goalkeeper in his own penalty area - in this case, the Referee would be
better off giving the decision one way or another - (Referees usually
give the benefit of the doubt to the defending team in situations of
There is much useful advice given to Referees to "keep up with play" -
"make sure you are as fit as possible" - "try and attain a sideways view
of play at all times" - "learn the Laws inside-out" etc.etc..... The
advice given here is not to countermine such useful advice, but to
provide the Referee with an additional structured psychological method
that allows him to make an instant decision, when all the previous
advice methods have failed. This allows the Referee to feel confident
with his judgment making - and completely rids his performance of those
wavering decision making incidents, where players are very quick to
criticize the slightest indecision. Players are certainly more receptive
to decisive strong Refereeing (even when they know that some of the
Referee's decisions were wrong), than they are too weak indecisive
The secret of impossible decision-making is to look and
remember the following key phrases:
Do not waver.
Do not be influenced.
Make honest decisions. - We
Referees do not CHEAT 'THE GAME' do we?
Your decision counts and nobody else's.
You are right even if you are really wrong!
Don't worry if everybody else thinks you are wrong – you’re
Making impossible decisions depends on the individual Referee's
perception, and his Default Automatic
Method Navigator (D.A.M.N.)
because you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't!). The
Referee needs to agree with himself before each game, how to deal with
the impossible. He needs to 'psyche himself up' to prepare for his
impossible decision making role. It does not matter what name you call
it (I have called it the D.A.M.N. method for ease of reference) but the
players will look to the Referee to make all the decisions in a game -
the easy decisions, the hard decisions and especially the impossible
A Referee who prepares himself with a standard method for dealing with
impossible decisions, will eventually find that although impossible
decisions are the hardest to make, they are probably the easiest to make
- because he makes them consistently, quickly, without worrying and
makes them automatically. This may seem like a contradiction - but let
me explain. Firstly, the Referee must recognize that there will be many
times during each game, where it is impossible to make the correct
This is due to a number of factors...
The speed of play:
The distance between the incident and the Referee:
The fitness of the Referee:
Whether there are players in the Referee's line of sight:
The shielding of the ball by the players' body:
Whether there are any Assistant Referees or not:
- And dare I say it "the Referee's eyesight"!
In situations of this type, the Referee can give the decision to the
attacking team or he can give it to the defending team (or he can
sometimes award a dropped ball).
Some Referees automatically give 'unsure' decisions to the defending
team - this is how it has been sportingly done historically in the past.
For example, during an unsure throw-in, the Referee will give the
benefit to the defending team, and award the throw-in to them.
Some modern Referees give 'unsure' decisions to the attacking team, thus
embodying a modern movement to give the attackers the advantage,
therefore increasing the chances of a goal being scored - which in turn
will increase the enjoyment of the spectators. For example, if a Referee
or an Assistant Referee is unsure whether an attacker is level or not
with the second last defender during an offside judgment, then the
benefit of the doubt normally goes to the attacker.
Other Referees will use a combination of the two paragraphs above, and
give the benefit of the doubt during off sides to the attacking team,
but conversely, give the benefit of the doubt during throw-ins to the
defending team – this combination method is the most widely used.
Referees are advised before the game, to choose which of the (to the
attacking team or to the defending team) D.A.M.N.
methods to use when being unsure on which way to give a decision. Of
course, the above advice also applies to the Assistant Referee,
particularly when judging offside situations.
The Referee should not 'lose any sleep' worrying about whether he has
made the correct decision or not during a game - so long as he has made
an honest decision at that particular time. Even if the
Referee (or Assistant Referee) makes the wrong decision - it is the
right decision as far as the match is concerned, because the decisions
of the Referee regarding facts connected with play are final. Impossible
decision type incidents happen in a split second, and Referees have to
make an instant judgment and continue onwards with the game. If a
Referee shows any weakness or uncertainty when making decisions, the
players, the crowd and the team's officials will certainly make the most
of it! Be firm and positive and accept that you will make
genuine honest mistakes, but that they are certainly not made
Regardless of whether you decide to give the ‘benefit of doubt’ to the
defending team or to the attacking team, or a combination of both, ALWAYS be consistent throughout each game.
When you have made a judgment on the field of play, even if in an
instant you have the slightest doubt that you think you might have made
the wrong decision, do not covey this to the players - be
POSITIVE and do not change your initial decision.
There will of course, be the odd times when as soon as a Referee makes a
decision, he suddenly realizes that he is woefully wrong. (Don't worry
when this happens - I've done it on many occasions, and still do.)
Honesty is the key word here. In situations
where the Referee has made a genuine mistake, he can change his decision
so long as play has not restarted. Players are usually receptive to an
honest mistake being rectified - the Referee just needs to admit that he
was wrong in the first place.
Whether an impossibly made decision is really factually right or
factually wrong does not matter. What does matter, is that the Referee
always makes an honest decision - which in that fraction of a ‘decision
making second’, seemed correct in his opinion, at that particular time.
Once the Referee has mastered the above methods for decision making, and
gained more experience with his officiating - if a decision doesn't come
naturally, then leave it - and allow play to continue.
The one factor that Referees have trouble with controlling when making
rational decisions is to make decisions independent of their physical,
emotional, psychological and spiritual state in which they happen to
find themselves before every game.
This can lead to Referees applying varying levels of tolerance towards
players, and thinking to themselves:
"You infringed the Law, but because I'm in a good mood today, and I like
you, and the moon is in the correct position! – Well maybe I’ll let it
go this once".
This is human nature, and what makes us all so very interesting - and is
beyond any help that I can give you................except be fair, and
above all be honest........