The Memories & Spirit of the Game, as only Ken Aston could teach it...
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On the Field of Play…
Andrew Castiglione
Founder of Ken Aston Referee Society

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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 NOT required.

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 equal decision)

~ Referee loses control of soccer match! ~

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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 sent-off.

(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 free kick.

(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 aide-memoir listing.

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 Laws.

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 cautioned?

(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 alone?

The quickest way for a new Referee to learn Law interpretation skills, is to:

(a) Officiate in as many games as possible, and learn by experience:

(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 this nature).

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 Refereeing.

The secret of impossible decision-making is to look and remember the following key phrases:

Be firm:

Be quick!

Be positive:

Stand erect.

Signal clearly.

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 right!

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 decisions.

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 decision.

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 on purpose.

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........

Happy honest decision-making!!!

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Page updated on... Saturday, September 06, 2014 @ 23:32:30 -0700 PM-GMT
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