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-= How Does This Happen? =-
How Does This Happen?
The Physical and Psychological
Dynamics of Crowd Behavior

by Brian Goodlander - (published in Referee Magazine) - 10/00
A Referee for Soccer Association for Youth (SAY), USSF, college and high school in Cincinnati.
He is a USSF Assessor and Instructor. Additionally, he is a board member of the...
South West Ohio Soccer Officials Association (SWOSOA).

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I am not a psychiatrist. But, I am a soccer referee, so I must be crazy. At least that is what many friends and family members tell me. Using the well-established analogy that it takes one to know one, I must be qualified to discuss unusual human behavior. With this qualification and after a long high school season, I started to discover some interesting dynamics at soccer matches that can be broken into two simple categories: (1) the physical and (2) psychological dynamics of crowd behavior.

The physical dynamics are associated with the human senses, primarily sight. How many times have you been working as an Assistant Referee and faced an easy, no-doubt off-side call, raised your flag and have everyone in the area react with extreme disbelief. This is usually followed by helpful instructions from well-intended, but biased observers. These instructions range from “It’s when the ball is kicked!” to “Are you watching the same game?” In utter amazement you are dumbfounded by this harassment following a simple off-side call. This outburst can not be explained only by a general lack of education in the rules of soccer and the art of refereeing but also by the physical dynamics of the crowd. Fans, bench players, and coaches watch the game of soccer by following the ball. Field players and referees watch the ball but also predict where the ball is going next before the ball is kicked or headed and their eyes are already there before the ball. In the off-side situation, the fans are following the player with the ball at his feet. The Assistant Referee is facing the field even with the second to last defender and determining if there is a likely opportunity for an offensive player to be in the off-side position. The attacker kicks the ball. The fans follow the ball through the air. The Assistant Referee hears the kick, notes that there is a player in the off-side position and when that player becomes involved in the play, the Assistant Referee raises his flag to indicate off-side. Meanwhile, the defenders rush back to protect their goal and pass the off-side attacker while the ball is in flight. The fans who were studiously following the ball watch the ball fall to the feet of the attacker who is surrounded by defenders and are amazed to see the flag raised. This is an example of the physical dynamics of crowd behavior.

Another physical dynamic is positioning. The game of soccer is a free-flowing game that ebbs and flows back and forth across the green grass of the pitch. The referee team is tested physically by moving with these ebbs and flows of the game. The fans, bench players, and coaches are limited in their ability to move with the game. The reference point is basically fixed. Often, the fans are placed in tiered seating that allows for a good overall view of the game despite their restricted movement. The problem is that this raised seating removes much of the perspective from the game at field level. Balls that are kicked straight up look like they are moving to one side or another, distances seem closer, and players look smaller and less intimidating. Most importantly, the fans can not see the expressions on the faces and in the eyes of the players. The referee team has the luxury to be able to move to obtain the proper perspective to see each play but the added complication of having so much visual stimuli (action, color, players, other officials, fan movement, etc.) that it is often difficult to either be in the right position or to see the proper event when it occurs. With these limitations in mind, let’s revisit our off-side situation. The Assistant Referee must first be sure that the player is in an off-side position prior to the pass and then be sure that the player is involved in the play. The stationary observers (fans, coaches, bench players) are likely not located even with the second to last defender and will have their judgment skewed by the angle that they see the play. The few number of observers that are in the right location and not watching the ball fly through the air are more likely limited by the perspective of their set position to really judge the level of involvement of the player in the play. This is another example of the physical dynamics of a crowd.

The psychological dynamics of a crowd often act as the fuel to feed the fire of their misunderstanding of the physical dynamics. One example of a psychological dynamic is the parent on the sideline watching their youngster play in a challenging match. These parents usually have radar lock on their child throughout their entire playing time. The see every push, every attempted trip, every impedance that the player may endure during this time. The intensity of these “fouls” are increased by their natural protectiveness and perceived lack of safety of their child. The referee team is chartered to watch every one of the 22 players on the field and spend the bulk of their time focused on the point of attack. This lack of attention to their “baby” and the intensification of “fouls” result in anxiety in the parent that wells up until they finally MUST express it.

If the game is a critical game for the team, maybe a tournament final or a rivalry, the anxiety of all the observers is usually much higher. The fans are anxious about the play of their favorite player or their child. The coach is worried about the outcome and the effect of the win or loss on his/her position as coach. The bench players are anxious about the performance of their teammates, the success of their team, and the prospective of how they may be involved in the final decision. All this anxiety is focused on success for the team. This focus is so intense that it becomes blinding. Every play, every foul becomes paramount. Cheers are screamed when the foul is called in their team’s favor. Catcalls are screamed when they are not called in their team’s favor. The observers are pushing their will to the field of play in hopes that it will create an advantage for their team. The observers’ intense focus and desire for a positive situation for their team trick their mind into seeing the play in a manner that helps their team. They truly believe that they saw the foul properly and the Referee’s decision must be wrong. The referee team’s job is to be impartial, to see the game fairly, and to administer the rules in a fair and just manner. Fifty percent of the observers will disagree with almost every call made during an intense match. This psychological dynamic of a crowd is the spark that sets off the fury and madness that occurs during soccer matches.

When the physical and psychological dynamics are combined in the frenzy of hard, physically challenging match, the anxiety and stress in the observers is great. They scream and yell with great emotion. This emotion is felt by the players on the field and they are directed by this emotion. If the screams and yells are positive words of encouragement, they play will more intensity but with control. If the screams and yells are negative and destructive towards their play, towards the coaching staff, towards the other team, or towards the referee team, the field players will play with more intensity but it could be mixed with recklessness and violence. How many times have you noted that players that have a calm coach and calm fans play in a calm, professional manner and players with an abusive and disrespectful coach and fans play with fury and abuse? It is in this explosive environment that the referee team MUST remain calm and professional. They must maintain their decorum and the respect for the game. Fouls must be called confidently and with full conviction. Conversations with players and observers must be limited and done with respect and with a calm confident voice. Serious or violent fouls must be dealt with quickly and with appropriate consequences.

This is how the referee team survives and the game is allowed to progress when the physical and psychological dynamics of a crowd come to boil.

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