Tips on how to deal with verbal abuse

How do you deal with verbal abuse as a referee? Nick Elliot wrote the story for my website: the “beautiful” game. He’s a level 7 referee in England working on a project for university to try and clamp down on verbal abuse towards referee. At the bottom of this post also a video he made with a chest camera that gives an insight to everyone into what a game looks like from the point of view of a referee.

The game from the referee’s point of view

Nick has made a video with a chest camera. It gives an insight to everyone into what a game looks like from the point of view of a referee.

Nick’s story the “beautiful” game

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 it 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.

7.000 UK refs quit every year

Verbal abuse towards referee’s 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 game was played in good spirits by the players and one which only had a couple of big decisions to be made. 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.

The moment when he stopped shouting

This is where most referee’s 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 as 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”. After that he went back into his shell, stopped shouting at me. The guy handed me back my whistle as, surprisingly, he didn’t want to be the referee. I then politely asked 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.

Ways to deal with verbal abuse

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. It made him realise that what he was saying wasn’t ok. Having refereed for over 5 years, I’ve picked up some tips from more senior referee’s 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:

  1. Communicate A lot of frustration from players/spectators comes from a lack of understanding about why you have made a decision. That’s 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 into a neutral space on the field. Don’t rush things, but 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.

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. And not just when the sun comes out.

Share your experience with verbal abuse

What are your experience with verbal abuse? How do you deal with it? Please share your story and tips with others below.


  • Brian lee

    Excellent advice well put, as an older L4 ref I have some life skills that our younger refs do not currently have, when they have a mixture of experience and life skills they will be able to enjoy and go as far as THEY want with the confidence and knowledge that they deserve to be at the level that they are officiating at,

  • Robert Guest

    Literally reffed my first game today and it was only a friendly and all the verbal abuse I received just made me feel really down about why I’m doing this like half way into the game I just wanted to walk off and quit I had no confidence I was messing up decisions, have you got any advice for me because me saying calm down over and over again judt seemed to make things worse, nearly ended up in a fight, you got any advice?

    • Jan ter Harmsel

      Thanks for your comment and honesty, Robert. More than happy to help. Make sure you draw a line as a referee. If you keep warning or trying to prevent things (“calm down”) that’s a good start. But if they won’t react to that, you need to draw a clear line for them. First thing you can do is get one offender over and isolate him or her and give a clear warning also using an arm gesture that others can see. Option two is issuing a yellow card for it, especially when you gave the final warning. Then they know you won’t tolerate it any more. They’re usually not eager to get a yellow card. If they realise you’ll keep warning, but won’t take measures like a yellow card, they’ll keep moaning and arguing. Just a quick note based on what you’ve written down. If any advice needed, you can also e-mail on

  • Wally C

    I told an opinionated fan in a youth lacrosse tournament that “I really would like to have you see the rest of your son’s game”. Crickets after that.

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