Sports psychology, as thesportinmind.com knows, is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world. The ever-growing financial, mental and emotional pressures placed on athletes is leading to a more prominent role for sports psychologists in Western societies. Famous sports stars such as Marcus Trescothick and (tragically) Robert Enke have suffered depression, whilst coaches have pushed athletes to breaking point in the scramble for success in sport. Constant demands are placed on sports stars, coaches and organisations – leading to the current increase in sports psychology.

Officials of the sports we love have one of the most important jobs in the sporting world. It’s a horrible cliché, but without officials these competitive sports would not take place. Referees are the subject of constant physiological and psychological pressures when officiating (Wolfson & Neave 2007). These pressures include fitness demands, verbal abuse and pressure to make a number of correct decisions over the course of a match. High profile cases of the pressure referees are under is the retirement of Anders Frisk due to death threats he received from Chelsea fans after refereeing a Champions League match against Barcelona in 2005, while Mark Clattenburg was the subject of false claims of racial discrimination in 2013 and considered his future in the game. Sports such as tennis, cricket and rugby have attempted to help referees by implementing technology such as the DRS in cricket and “Hawk-Eye” in tennis helps, along with the general etiquette of the giants who play rugby. Although not psychological support per se, these technological interventions reduce the impact of immediate decisions on the game as a second opinion can quickly be obtained.

Soccer is decades behind in the implementation for technology to help referees (although this ‘debate’ is left for a different day). This means soccer referees are arguably under the most pressure over the 90 minutes of officiating than any other sport – however the mass media are constantly moaning about the decreasing standard of referees in the game. Soccer referees regularly suffer physical and verbal abuse from players, coaches and spectators; additionally get no help from video technology – leading to their big decisions becoming even more stressful due to the importance they hold. In particular younger, less experienced soccer referees are more prone to aggression and threats in the form of verbal abuse (Folkesson, Nyberg, Archer & Norlander 2002). Furthermore younger referees’ concentration was more affected by aggressive behaviour – 79% of soccer referees in the sample had experienced physical or verbal threats on at least one occasion during their officiating. The drop-out rate of newly qualified referees in the UK, currently stands at over 50% of referees dropping out 12 months after qualifying (Manchester Evening News 2013). However in the current FA level one refereeing course there is no help whatsoever on managing conflict, players, or dealing with the demands of officiating the game. Surely some focus on the development and/or education of coping strategies which can be used by newly qualified officials would help referees deal with the stressors reported, and could dramatically reduce the drop-out rate in the UK.

Voight (2008) developed a ‘Sources of Officiating Stress Questionnaire’ (SOSQ) which investigated sources of stressors among US soccer referees (N = 200) and found that the main sources of stress officials experienced were: making an incorrect/controversial call, positional concerns, abuse from coaches and a conflict between their officiating and life outside refereeing (i.e. family and other work). There have been little/no studies into the sources of stress for UK soccer referees specifically – in fact research is scant into officials in general. So much focus is placed (rightly so) on competitors and (to a lesser extent) teams and coaches, but officials could also benefit from the help of sports psychologists.

Research has been conducted into coping strategies and responses to stressors used by referees. Voight (2008) also investigated coping strategies in USA officials by developing an Acute Coping Questionnaire for Officials (ACQO), based on Crocker & Graham’s (1995) COPE model. Voight (2008) found that problem-focused coping strategies were used more often by referees than coping strategies (as opposed to emotion-focused strategies). Problem-focused coping strategies included doing things like reviewing performance or asking peers for an analysis of decisions made in order to improve performance. Neave & Wolfson (2007) identified soccer referees who displayed a problem-solving coping strategy tended to learn from their mistakes, whereas less confident referees reported feeling a loss of pride and ruminating over mistakes – hinting at more emotional-focused coping strategies.

All in all, a lot of referee hyperbole is put into the media by the English F.A. (football association) such as the RESPECT campaign but is it actually working? Just as the focus of attention in soccer players has moved from the top to grassroots, the same needs to be implemented for referees. The current drop-out rate is unacceptable, and needs to be remedied: the fun has gone out of officiating in football (I know that from personal experience). A quick module on coping with the demands of refereeing unruly teenagers and young adults on a miserable Sunday morning could work wonders for the confidence and competence of referees in this country, and who knows, make a small start on the long ladder to producing a batch of world-class officials who can cope with the demands of the beautiful game.