Referees’ use of Technology: Is this what we want from the game?

Let me draw your attention to the football game this week between Southampton and Newcastle in the Carabao cup (for the incident fwd to 7mins 40 seconds which involved an “inadvertent hand” of Southampton’s Adam Armstong. Trailing by a goal to nil, Southampton equalised and were awarded the goal until VAR intercepted the decision. The eagle eyed reviewers in their booth quite rightly spotted contact with the player’s hand. By the letter of the law, the officials disallowed the goal and the travelling Newcastle fans could breathe again. This is what it’s come to? A game dictacted to us by analysts in a video booth miles away from the action… There was not a player on the field appealing for the decision and nobody in the stands would have had a clue either. Surely this is a case of technology gone wrong?

Let me draw an analogy that I experienced this week. In collecting a hire car I drove my annual trip to glentress mountain bike centre of Scotland with some postgraduate students for an away day. As I was driving along I suddenly felt the car pull to the left, and was forced to correct the steering, thinking “oh no I must have a flat tyre” but as I continued the problem stopped. Moments later the same happened again and i noticed a light illuminating on the dashboard – the image of a car swerving… “ahh it must be the anti-lock braking”, I thought. But no, I wasn’t braking. It was only at that point that I noticed the “Driver Assistance” light was activitated and realised it was the auto-sensors steering my away from the lines on the road. So this safety measure, designed to protect me from danger was in fact threatening the safety of me and my passengers. What’s more disturbing is that this “assistive technology” appears to be set as the default, thus rendering the next passenger who has not encountered driver assistance before, equally at its peril.

Technology does not understand context

It strikes me that this is what is happening with VAR, which led me to thinking about defenders placing their hands behind their back so as not to incur a handball when the attacker shoots past them. This clearly unnatural position for the arms, then renders the defender vulnerable to a handball if they are struck with the ball as their arms are clearly not in a natural position. So what do i do as a defender have my arms at my side balancing my movement in a natural position but risk getting a contact that could look awkward and deemed a handball or try to hide them and equally risk giving away a free-kick for handball… This is absolutely bonkers. I think more power needs to be given to the onfield players (the captain) to contest when they think a wrong-doing has occurred (to the naked eye) rather then being dictated to by an unknown in a studio in Stockley park who feels obliged to find fault and enforce the letter of the law which nobody wants! Time for a rethink…

25% of Scottish Soccer Referees suffered physical abuse

Are we really creating an effective environment to recruit, retain and develop match officials? In a study conducted by Edinburgh Napier University student Niamh Westwood, surveying over 10% of Scotland’s soccer match officials, 96% of the respondents indicated that they had experienced verbal abuse whilst officiating. This probably comes as no surprise, but perhaps more alarmingly, when provided with definitions of types of abuse…

Physical abuse: “the intentional use of physical contact in an aggressive manner, and can involve hitting, kicking, biting and spitting”

Verbal abuse: “the raising of voices and name calling and can be done in an aggressive manner”

Online abuse: ” is termed as “insulting and abusive language directed towards an individual across all form of online communications, including social media”

25% of the 220 respondents highlighted that they had suffered from physical abuse. A quarter of our officiating population have been physically assaulted whilst performing their duties. Imagine if that was your workplace. Clearly this is not acceptable, but what is anyone doing about it?

Commentators Fuel the Fire

A recent Linkedin post by Premiership Rugby and 6-Nations match official Christophe Ridley highlighted the extent of the problem. Following England men’s soccer team’s exit in the world cup quarter final 2022 pundit Gary Neville Tweeted “Ref’s a Joke”. Adopting a more considered response Christophe posted the following

The ripple effect of this tweet impacts refereeing standards in the long term. Even for those who do pick up a whistle, in the end all you’re left with is the referees that are able to tolerate and survive … not the actual best referees! Unknowingly this damages the game.”

Absolutely spot on. So called pundits are damaging the game. Those in positions of power should assume responsiblity for preserving the integrity of our game instead of de-humanising this most important individuals who give up there time to allow the game to continue #norefsnogame.

27% of our soccer referees surveyed had also experienced online abuse. Given the population were largely community level referees, it is highly likely that the higher profile officials are likely to have experienced even higher levels. So, ask yourself. If you love your game – what are you doing to help it’s growth in the right direction?

Free Webinar on Enhancing Officiating Performance

Free Webinar with MSc PESO Students Friday July 15th 2022 10am BST

I’m really excited to be hosting a showcase of some of our students work on Friday 15th July 10am BST (GMT+1). The session will be live streamed on Facebook and on Linkedin.

John Howorth has been involved in two decision making projects during his studies. He identified an area of his game that needed improvement and in order to develop his own knowledge and prediction of patterns of play, created a “What happened next?” video based training tool. Johnny will show how this research not only helped the decision accuracy of a group of community umpires, but also enhanced his own decision accuracy.

John is an AFL field umpire – pictured here as one of the officiating team on the field when Lance Franklyn kicked his 1000th goal of his career this season.

Christina Barrow will be presenting her research into mental-well being for the world netball volunteer workforce. Adopting a positive psychology framework Christina collected data from international panel umpires, TID umpires, members of the testing panel and umpire coaches and co-ordinators to ensure a full cross-section of the population. She asked respondents how they view and experience well-being in order to gain perspective of the lived experience of those involved in the game.

Christina is the International Officiating Manager at World Netball.

Peter Strikwerda conducted a very innovative project where he applied the Rose of Leary framework to two basketball referees’ officating performance. Peter investigated a number of interactions with both players and coaches to assess their performance along two axes (above-below, and against-together). This work provides a unique frame for exploring “dominance” and “co-operation” amongst basketball officials.

Peter is the Secretary General of the Dutch Basketball Association and a lecturer in esports games & event management at MBO College in the Netherlands.

Clare Daniels will be discussing her research with female cricket, football and rugby officials. Her work centres on the unique challenges for female officials in their development and how their choice of pathway (male game or female game) impacts upon their progression. Clare has developed her research project after conducting an independent study project which investigated the challenges of females operating in male-dominated environments such as the police force, firefighting and sports officiating.

Clare was appointed as an Elected Director on the Board of Rugby Football Referees Union to assist with female development within the game.

Eye Tracking Research Shows Touch Rugby Referees use a Decision Priority System

Research conducted by Jack Birtwhistle (Masters student at Edinburgh University & Supervisor of Dr Amanda Martindale) in conjunction with colleagues at Edinburgh Napier University used eye-tracking glasses to test officiating expertise with 3 international touch rugby referees.

I’ll save you my ramblings on the theoretical contributions of the paper, but from an applied perspective it makes some significant findings. Given the complexity of officiating the touch and roll-ball in parallel to managing the offside line it appears that expert referees use their advanced knowledge of the game to predict and prevent infringements before they occur. This allows them to preload the defenders on where the eminent offside line will be by both communicating to them positioning themselves on that line before it comes into play.

Although this may not be groundbreaking news to those referees operating at this level, it is the first scientific study to use in-game footage with the addition of eye-tracking glasses to examine such cognitive challenges for match officials. The table below reveals the ordering system that helps referees to manage these demands.

Mascarenhas, Birtwhistle & Martindale (under review, 2022)

The three referees in the study, each who have officiated over 50 international games of touch rugby, all cited the importance of teamwork, and how they rely on their sideline officials to manage other aspects of the game, so that they can remain focused on the more central players.

It is expected that the protocol employed here, using first-person, eye-tracked footage, together with postgame review (known as applied cognitive task analysis) will for the basis for future online digital training for sports officials across all sports.

Learn from the best

Edinburgh Napier University will soon release a series of bitesize online learning resources for the aspiring sports official.

Condensing the latest research evidence alongside interviews with top flight international referees and referee managers, each module is designed to help your performance.

Arriving in January: Effective Verbal Communication for the Sports Official brings to life research from Dr Ian Cunningham and Dr Pete Simmons (Professor of Communication) with videos of hockey, rugby union, touch rugby and netball.

Hear from top international rugby union referee Hollie Davidson and RFU National Referee Academy Manager Chris White on the characteristics that are important to be a top official.

For more information contact

How to Make it as a Top Referee

International rugby union referees share their experiences of what took them to the top. Hollie Davidson – International Rugby 7’s and 6 Nations refereee from Scotland and RFU National Referee Academy Manager Chris White discuss their ideas on how to make it.

Chris White refereed the world cup semi-final in 2003 and was tipped to referee the RWC final had his home nation England not made it to the championship game. He works closely with Englands Premiership referees and is now responsible for developing the next generation of referees to reach that level.

For more tips from top sports officials – go to Napier University

CPD Modules for Referees: Understanding Players

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 13.49.03Edinburgh Napier University is soon to launch its CPD platform for sports officials. You can learn strategies on how to enhance aspects of your game, including; verbal communication, non-verbal communication, understanding players, conflict management, coping with pressure, pre-game briefings, mental toughness, managing distractions and mental well-being. By condensing the latest research and drawing upon experts in the area, you can learn strategies to help you make more accurate decisions under pressure and communicate more effectively with players. Here’s a taster of what you can expect from our module on “Understanding Players”….

World’s First Masters Degree for Sports Officials

The brand new MSc Performance Enhancement in Sports Officiating is designed for national and international level referees/umpires. This part-time masters degree runs 100% online, so you can complete it in your own time, wherever you are!

Based at Edinburgh Napier University you will have checkpoints through the year designed to help share expertise with other national/international level officials. You will meet your tutors who will mentor you through your degree with ongoing online support and video based activities.

Course Structure:

Trimester 1 – Work Based Learning for Sports Officials: You will complete a 360 degree profile, including peer/coach/self-reflections to identify areas for your personal development.

Trimester 2 – Communication & Game Management: Through extensive use of video you will learn the different ways in which players try to influence you, your own typical conflict management style and how to enhance your verbal and non-verbal communication skills for developing more effective relationships.

Trimester 3 – Leadership and Organisational Management for Sports Officials: You will learn contemporary theories to relate to your own leadership capabilities and evaluate them in relation to effective organisational, team and game management.

After year one you have the option of exiting with a PG-Certificate Performance Enhancement in Sports Officiating, or you can continue to year 2:

Trimester 1 – High-Pressure Decision Making: Using theories developed in the military, fire-fighting and NASA space control you will learn about principles of decision training. Addressing a hot topic in your sport you will be guided through mechanisms to assess and train more accurate in-game decisions for you and your colleagues.

Trimester 2 & 3 – Independent Study: In this module you will be encouraged to research a practice-based problem, tailored to suit your own personal needs in your sporting context. The module is designed flexibly to develop your critical and reflective thinking in relation to your own professional needs.

IMG_1075 Whistle-cropAfter year two you have the option of exiting with a PG-Diploma Performance Enhancement in Sports Officiating, or you can continue to year 3:

Trimester’s 1, 2 & 3 (September to August) – Research Project: This module will require you to conduct a programme of independent research within your practice, led by a supervisor with expertise in the area.

Interested? Drop Duncan a line at, or click here for information on Fees and to How to Apply.

#refereecpd  #science4refs

NSA Women's Football

Blog at

Up ↑