Some days I can see why football has been given the title of the beautiful game. When the sun is shining, great football is being played and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Other days, I really struggle to see why it has been labelled with such a title. You know those games when it’s chucking down with rain, it’s windy, the ball is in the air more than it’s on the ground, and the players are on your case every time you blow your whistle. Being a referee can be very tough on these kind of days.
Verbal abuse towards referees is an issue that causes more than 7,000 referees to quit every year in the UK. This is a large percentage considering there are only around 50,000 in the country. I’m sure the majority of referees will be able to tell stories of how they’ve dealt with various incidents of verbal abuse they’ve been subject to. One story springs to mind…
Early on in my refereeing career, I regularly officiated junior football at one of the local clubs in the area in South East England. It was in one of these games where a spectator was shouting at me throughout the whole of the game. This was a game that was played in good spirits by the players and one which only had a couple of big decisions to be made. After the spectator shouted at me numerous times for a decision I made, I blew my whistle to stop the game and went over to deal with it.
This is where most referees would politely ask the spectator to either be quiet or leave. In this situation, I chose something completely different. As I walked over to this angry man, he continued to shout abuse at me. I took my whistle off of my wrist and without saying anything, handed it to him. When he took it, he looked at me completely bewildered. I then said, “there you go, you can referee the rest of the game,” to which he went back into his shell, stopped shouting at me, and handed me back my whistle. Surprisingly, he didn’t want to be the referee. I then politely asked if that if he doesn't want to do my job, then either keep your opinions to yourself or go back to the car park. I didn’t hear a peep from this man again.
There’s a lot of ways to deal with verbal abuse. Maybe the method I chose in that incident wasn’t the best, but for that person it seemed to shock him and made him realize that what he was saying wasn’t ok. Having refereed for over 5 years, I’ve picked up some tips from more senior referees on dealing with confrontation and verbal abuse on the pitch. Here are some of my top tips that might help you deal with verbal abuse better:
A lot of frustration from players/spectators comes from a lack of understanding about why you have made a decision, most likely because they have a totally different view to what you have. Don’t be afraid to call a player in just to explain your decision. Just make sure that the player is calmer when they leave you.
#2: Be Confident
You might be feeling the pressure when players and spectators don’t like your decision, but remaining confident about your decision tells everyone you know what you’re doing.
#3: Take your time
Time is your best friend on the field. When talking to a player about their attitude towards you, get to a neutral space on the field and take your time. Initially, players can be frustrated but that should wear off after a while. Stop the watch -- you can add the time on at the end of the half.
If you take your time, communicate clearly and with confidence, it should help diffuse any situation you find yourself in. Don’t forget that your decision is always right, even if others think it’s wrong. If everyone understood this, then maybe the beautiful game would be beautiful all of the time, not just when the sun comes out.
Nick Elliott has over five years of experience as a referee with Berks & Bucks Football Association in the United Kingdom. He's currently studying Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln in Lincolnshire.