The majority of sport aficionados were sad to hear the announcement of Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the most successful football managers of all time. However, there may have been a slight sigh of relief from one particular group: football referees! Ferguson, along with other managers, players and of course fans, often criticised the performance of referees. Although on more than a few occasions he may have been right, do referees deserve such criticism?
Professional football referees are crucial members of the sport and have recently been described as performers in their own right (Philippe, Vallerand, Andrianarisoa, & Brunel, 2009). Their role involves effective game management, maintaining discipline, split-second decision making and allowing the game to flow (Slack, Maynard, Butt & Olusoga, 2013).
The environment in which referees must perform is undoubtedly one of the toughest and most demanding parts of their job. The nature of the match itself (such as a derby or promotion/relegation battle) can often create a highly pressurised situation. Throw in some hostile fans (and players) and the pressure of media exposure and the potential stress for the referee is undeniable. This is likely to impact upon the psychological state of the referee, which in turn will most likely contribute to the effectiveness of their decision making.
The ability for referees to deal with the psychological demands associated with football matches requires certain mental qualities. A recent study by Slack et al. (2013) investigated these qualities by interviewing referees from the English Premier League. The overriding theme mentioned was mental toughness, which is consistent with other areas of the performance excellence literature (Gould, Dieffenbach, & Moffett, 2002).
The referees in this study understood mental toughness to comprise of several different components, such as self-belief, striving for achievement and a high work ethic. Also mentioned was the ability to cope with pressure (particularly from the media) and resilience (i.e. overcoming and not dwelling on poor performances).
The above research emphasises the importance for referees to be in the optimal psychological state to be able to achieve performance excellence (a necessity for professional referees). The psychological demands of refereeing are often overlooked and perhaps a greater awareness is needed before criticising their performance in this demanding environment.