Psychologists have a warped view of referees

One thing that often surprises me is the amount of research that universities spend on football and in particular refereeing. I suppose that football being the world’s most popular sport; it is something that is going to make the press headlines. Two members of NorthumberlandUniversity, Dr Melissa Anderson and Dr Sandy Wolfson, presented their research on referees to The British Psychological Society annual meeting at the end of last season. After interviewing 11 Premier League referees and 183 at county level, the level you will find on our local parks, they came up with the conclusion that those who were older and more experienced, believed themselves to be more accomplished.  Is that such a revelation? Doesn’t that apply to all walks of life? Hopefully, we will all learn from our experiences and become better over the years at what ever we do. My eldest grandson is at present at university studying psychology. Clever though he may be, I’m sure that Dr’s Anderson and Wolfson would consider themselves to be more accomplished than he is.

But the two doctors go further than that. They claim that referee suffer from ‘illusory feelings of superiority and an exaggerated sense of their abilities’. The referees interviewed were asked to compare themselves with others of a similar level using a range of positive and negative characteristics. Almost without fail, they ranked themselves as ‘better prepared for matches’, ‘more confident’ and ‘more decisive’ than their peers and judged themselves as better able to ‘deal with pressure’ than fellow referees as they were less anxious and less apprehensive. Again there is little surprising here. If we take footballers for instance, are there any sitting on the bench who don’t feel that they should be on the pitch? I’m sure we can all recall some who when not picked make their exasperation known on twitter.

One interesting comment from Dr Melissa is that given the unrelenting pressure that referees face, their inflated (her term) self belief could be a coping mechanism to help them deal with the onslaught of often very personal criticism and abuse. ‘Referees,’ she said, ‘have to have high levels of resilience, mental toughness and little self doubt.’ There is no doubt that a referee’s best attribute is to have a high degree of confidence but that is not unusual. You hear competitors in all sports, credit confidence in their ability for their success. And this isn’t just confined to sport. Years ago when I served on REEL (Reading Education and Industry Link), a body to bring together schools and businesses in the town, a teacher once asked me what was it that industry wanted from schools. My answer was ‘confident young people’. Confident, not arrogant, not complacent, and always prepared to learn more. That also sounds to me like a blueprint for a good referee.

There is of course competition amongst referees but the psychologists view seems to be that refereeing is full of squabbling egotists. The truth is very difficult. Let me give one personal experience. In my early days I refereed the Reading Junior Cup at ElmPark. Several fellow referees came into the dressing room afterwards to congratulate me but one came back after the others had gone to give me a little tip that he thought would improve my performance. The next morning I received a letter from another referee who had been at the game. In those days if you posted a letter at the general post office before midnight it would get there first thing in the morning. He gave me the same tip. I acted on it and gained promotion the next season. That is the reality of what we call the refereeing family.

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