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-= Mechanics and Interpretation of Play Action =-
Mechanics and Interpretation of Play Action
by Mike "Skipper" Goblet
"Cogito ergo Arbitro - I think therefore Umpire"
Member of the Masters of Mayhem

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This is part of a series of posts in work at this time. The two areas, Mechanics and Interpretation of Play Action are the first part. Future posts will look into Foul Identification, Player Management, and many other areas.

This may go a little deep, and reflects one man's experience and the opinions formed from that experience. I do not suggest that what I will discuss reflects the best way, or even the right way, to apply the art of mechanics to this game. I do suggest that what I discuss has been exceptionally successful in my soccer career of over 1,500 matches at almost all levels and age groups.

I picked up the whistle officially in 1988 when I was 39; I worked my way to State 1 in about 6 years, and worked constantly until 2001, when work changed the focus of my attention. I plan to return in the next few months as time and tide permit. I've written a bit, was a small contributor to the first ATR, and Referee used some of my material in a book in 2001. I've had the honor of being invited to a number of venues to meet and speak with referees, and to serve at many prestigious tournaments. I have many good friends from soccer, and owe soccer far more than I have yet given. Humility is one of the hallmarks of a great referee, and I'm not humble enough, by half.

I had a great benefit "growing up" in Upstate New York. Most of my matches were a one-man match, with club linesmen of very dubious quality. Until I came to Florida, I rarely experienced a true DSC with linesmen, later assistant referees. Doing a one-man match, you learn quickly that you have no support network and must carry the whole load. The referee has to use everything in their tool bag to manage these matches - from U-8 to Over-45. Yes, Mens D1 by your lonesome. "Ethnic" matches by your lonesome. Now, such a situation may savage a new referee, so the assignor was (and still is) very careful in who is assigned to what match. Even so, survival as a referee depended upon quickly developing the necessary skill sets; it was a true learning environment which provides a marked benefit to the eager student.

I discovered that a great amount of referee problems were self-inflicted. We don't always offer value for money; we are expected to be good when paid (begging the question if AYSO folks are expected to be good for nothing ...). Folks demand a quality product, and when we do not deliver it is understandable that they may become a bit cross, and offer constructive criticism. Now, before the reader assumes I heap all responsibility/blame for all sub-optimal results on the referee, be of good faith, 'tis not so. Most referees are very hard working and dedicated toward skill, knowledge, and ability growth.

Referee problems arise from three causes, one natural and the other, well, unnatural:

1.) The steep learning curve from novice to the beginning stages of competence,
2.) The utter reticence of some referees to seek added training and/or advice, and
3.) The inability to perform at a level appropriate to the match at hand.

Time and experience will correct the first cause, the other two require more from the referee than they are willing or able to offer.

In order to deliver a quality product, we must learn the laws. We must understand what they mean, how they came into use, and under what circumstances they are applied. This information is available in various forms - Laws of the Game and Additional Instructions (FIFA), Advice to Referees (USSF), Q&A (FIFA), USSF Memos and Position Papers - all of which are available through the USSF web site. Effective clinics, advanced training courses, and a few really good books are crucial to referee development. Material has never been more available, and no referee can claim with any degree of fact that they have no means of developing a solid knowledge of the laws.

Knowledge alone is not sufficient. Referees must next develop a feel for the game, which is different from the feel of players, coaches, and spectators. We must study the dynamics of player contact and interaction, and the verbal and non-verbal signals all players continually display.

We all are, or should be, aware that referees should manage a match using their powers in a measured, or proportional, manner. Our goal is to apply sufficient control to allow the match to flow with few interruptions, while protecting players from illegal actions by their opponents. This includes protecting all players from injuries caused by illegal actions and violence. To achieve this goal, we must employ the skills of proper mechanics, interpretation of play action, and effective decision making.


You can't manage what you can't see. Proper mechanics, which I describe as the art of being where you need to be before you need to be there, is a subject which could take up many books. In my mind, there are two primary

aspects: gaining a good position and field of view.


Gaining good position, which results in a clear view of play action, requires constant maneuvering, interpretation of the ebb and flow of play, and good use of "dead time."

MANEUVERING: My preferred position is tied to field position. In the defensive third and in midfield, I want to be ahead of play - I want play to come to me. In the attacking third, I want to follow play. Imagine or draw a soccer pitch, including the boundaries, a halfway line, and with the penalty areas at the top and bottom. Superimpose a large "S" on the field of play, with the letter starting at the left bottom corner of the top penalty area, crossing at the center spot, and ending at the top right corner of the bottom penalty area. Using this concept as the basis for my patrol pattern, one can see that I generally go rather wide. Note that neither this concept nor the straight diagonal shown in most soccer media are railroad tracks - both are totally flexible to allow lateral movements to close on play so as to gain a clear view of play action. This "S" diagonal is also the foundation of REBAR, a mechanic that emphasizes the need for the REferee to have both the Ball and the AR within their field of view.

Lest anyone be mistaken by the above paragraph, match situations often shift patrol patterns dramatically.

Should play move rapidly up the right side of the pitch, the referee would be advised to go straight ahead, and only fan out a bit when approaching the penalty area. In this instance, physical location relative to play outweighs REBAR and going wide. The referee must be very aware of their surroundings in such a situation, so as not to be trapped in the passing lanes or to lose any hope of a timely visual link with the AR.

Temperature of the match, emotionally and/or environmentally may demand much greater presence. Allied with temperature affecting players, it also affects the referee, who may need to shepherd their stamina. Rain, snow, ice, standing water - all of these may also affect your patrol pattern.

One item which certainly affect patrol patterns may seem contrary to reason. The referee can't afford to be consistent in being in the same place every time play is in a given area on the pitch. Players who know where you will likely be will take advantage of your predictability to shield fouls and misconduct. Nothing is more disconcerting to sly, underhanded, players than not knowing precisely where you are. The patrol patterns are a guide, not a road map. Patrol intelligently.

INTERPRETATION EBB AND FLOW OF PLAY: When we are able to establish an effective position, reading the ebb and flow of play is really not terribly difficult. At its heart is learning not to fixate on a single spot. In most situations, we have a second here and there where play action does not demand our complete attention. We can use that time to scan the field and gain situational awareness. Where are the players, and what are their match-ups? Are the attackers likely to maintain control. Do the attackers have numerical superiority? Do the present defenders have numerical superiority, and where are their forwards?

With that information, when we observe a change or an imminent change of possession we can determine where and how quickly the counterattack will develop and maneuver toward that area. Watch the actions of the player in possession of the ball. Are they looking nearby, or long? Are they preparing for a long lead pass, or dribbling? Their actions present this information in a continual stream. Usually, when the player with the ball has enough time to lift his head and glance around, so does the referee.

DEAD TIME: There is plenty of "dead time" in every match. Goalkeeper possession (6 seconds is a lot of time), goal kicks, throw-ins, and free kicks afford the referee with an enormous amount to time to reposition. Walking should be avoided when repositioning for two reasons: 1) jogging buys respect from all observers, even if subconsciously, and 2) even a few seconds of non-movement when you have arrived at your chosen position provides a short "break" and allow you to observe the players from a comfortable position.


It appears that doctrine or dogma dictate that the referee will remain within 10 yards of play. I find this too close for an experienced referee, at least for me. I may be 15 or more yards away from play much of the time, but will close in when I find it necessary. The extra distance expands my field of view greatly, and allows me to observe not only play action but also off-the-ball action. I am also less likely to enter the passing lanes and thereby lowers the potential that I will interfere with play. An old rule of thumb states that if you are hit by the ball once, you are close enough; if hit by the ball more than once, you are too close. I'm not certain that I fully support these thoughts, yet they do have some wisdom in them.

I'm comfortable working at that distance, and rarely experience constructive criticism from my customers. The key, as noted in the description of the "S" diagonal and in the last paragraph, is closing in as play action dictates. When a referee employs effective mechanics, they will be able to gain and maintain a good position to observe not only play action but also much of what is happening on the pitch. As an added bonus, greater teamwork is possible by maintaining visual contact with the lead AR.


I suggest there are three phases of in play action: development, action, and after action. All that follows in this section requires time, the amount of which is directly relative to the referee's ability to gain a good position. 2 or 3 seconds can seem like forever when in position; 10 seconds can be too short when out of position. It is vital that a referee work to gain and maintain good position. Failure to do so is the greatest contributor to poor man- and match- control. While this discussion presupposes the referee is in good position, the elements are equally valuable when not in position.


For illustration purposes, Red has control of the ball. Their center halfback is unchallenged while he crosses the halfway line. The referee is visually scanning to discover the Blue team's formation and to identify the most likely Blue defenders. He observes two Blue players moving to intercept Red. The referee can evaluate many things: speed of approach, focus, fitness, and field conditions. All of this information is important. Is there a notable difference in speed of approach of the attacker and the defender? Is the defender focusing on the attacker and not the ball? Is either the attacker or the defender observable unfit or tired? Is the section of the pitch muddy, slick, sandy? Each of these bits of information, along with others I have not included (such as weather), are used by the referee to prepare for various potential actions, as I'll narrate below.

Okay, Red has the ball. Where is Blue? Mostly behind coming from behind him, another moving up to challenge. The one behind...he won't catch up, not quick enough. The other one is closing on him quickly, trying to force him out. I'd better move closer to the touch and back up. Blue's attention is...high - he's looking at the player, not adjusting to be in position to contest for the ball. Okay, now Blue is slowing down a bit, still facing Red. He looks like he's setting a pick, almost. Watch for lower body contact, but don't lose the arms and hands. Don't ball-watch, the ball can't commit a foul. Keep moving, keep position, keep field of view. Get ready, here it comes ...


Where is Blue looking? What is his body position? Is he moving or set? Okay, Red is right there...and Blue sticks out a leg to try an upright tackle. Solid ball contact, he trapped the ball well. No foul contact, arms in, no thigh follow through. Red is off balance, stumbling, but Blue has the ball. Time to move...


Not too quick, now. Scan up-field, does Blue have a target? Remember, the ball does not commit fouls, but is a good reference as to where fouls may occur. There, across on the far touch, there's a dance going on. (When the ball is lofted up high, don't look at it. The players will tell you where it's headed. Look for pairs of opponents bumping-grabbing-pushing each other - these are the dancers.)

Before you move your complete attention to the developing play, quickly scan back, what's Red doing. Hmmm, not good...he's coming up behind Blue and - and - and he just smacked him on the back of the head. Quick look up-field - no developed attack on the left wing, whistle up, deal with this before it gets out of hand. Tweet!

PUTTING INTERPRETATION OF PLAY ACTION TOGETHER: What I described above may take, say, 5 to 15 seconds. Any given match may have a hundred or more of these play action sequences, each unique. A series of short film clips, sewn together to produce a match. If we look at a match in this fashion, it can be exhilarating! We leave the Dick Tracy world behind us and begin to see "our" match, the match no one else sees.

I believe that any referee who can understand and apply the concepts expressed above will gain a few steps on the players, and a few miles ahead of their peers who do not. I trust my thoughts will be of some utility to you.

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