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Nonverbal communication as a referee

The modern game as we love it, is a game that’s undoubtedly challenging to referee in this ever growing technological era where referees are constantly under scrutiny. However I’m writing this article on nonverbal communication as a referee to show you that refereeing isn’t all about what we say, nor the countless disputed decisions we make. But this focuses more on the psychology of refereeing and in particular how our nonverbal communication effects the game.

There are 3 elements to how everyone communicates in life and surprisingly people interpreting your conversation does not come from what we actually say, in fact only a mere 7% of the interpretation comes from the words themselves. 30% of interpretation comes from our tone of voice (called our paralinguistics) but the other 55% of interpretation is non-verbal. Therefore getting our non verbal communication correct is key to a good game. Nonverbal communication is the body language we use, as well as our facial expressions and hand gestures.

4 things that are in important for nonverbal communication as a referee:

  1. Hand gestures
  2. Postural echo (what? It’s copying another persons posture)
  3. Touch
  4. Personal space

Hand gestures

First of all the communication with players is essential to having a good enjoyable game. Hand gestures are very important as not only are there a set of hand gestures we are required to use by the Laws of the Game, but also the other gestures used and general hand gestures we use to communicate in general life. What we need to do in order to ‘sell’ the decision is make sure that our hand gestures are complementing what we say. By that I mean when we’re speaking, hand gestures are a fantastic way to back this up as long as they are used correctly. For example when telling a player to calm down the widely known and used gesture of using open palms complements being calm and non confrontational. The open palms can be used a lot during a game.They can be used for telling players to leave by simulating a pushing action with one hand, and also used for telling a player to come over to you. By keeping your palms open it’s seen as non confrontational and shows that you’re the one that’s in control.

Postural echo

Something that Psychologists call postural echo can be used to build a rapport with the players. Postural echo is in essence copying the other persons posture, so this could mean walking a bit more like they do and standing a bit more like they do. Although consciously the players don’t recognise this, this will be telling them that you’re more like them and will enable you to build a rapport with them. However this is very much situation dependant. If one of your games gets flared up and you need to assert your authority this
can be done by something called the peacock. This can be done by lifting your chest up more and shows a sense of superiority and dominance. However it’s best not to over use this otherwise you may be seen as over officious.

The power of touch

The power of touch is something that can have an influence on the game too, although I would recommend only using this for open age football and not youth football, as we all know what child protection is like these days. A piece of research carried out by suggested that touch can have an unconscious and positive effect on attitudes. Fisher conducted an experiment in a library where the Liberian touched half of the students on the hand and didn’t with the other half. All of the students who were touched rated it as a better experience. Therefore in refereeing we can use touch to our advantage and to build that key rapport with players. And the RESPECT hand shake at the start of the game is a good way of doing this.

Personal space

Personal space is something that’s described as an emotionally charged bubble which surrounds each individual. If personal space is invaded we can feel exploited and very uncomfortable. There are 4 types of personal space. Whilst cautioning or dismissing a player the LOTG says that we should isolate the player but what it does not say is the
amount of space there should be. The player that you’re dealing with should be around 1.5 – 2 meters away, this is called the social space. Your personal space which is 0.5 – 1.5 meters should not be invaded on most occasions and anyone that enters that space has no right to do so, if a player does enter that space in a hostile manner you are well within your rights to rebuke that player and caution them for adopting an aggressive attitude or dissent. The public space is over 4 meters which is where all other players should be whilst you have isolated the player to talk to them, apart from the captain, if appropriate. So take a few of these tips away with you and see if they work in your game. Psychology in refereeing #2 is to follow next season!

The story is written by Michael Jones on nonverbal communication as a referee. Michael is a Level 7 Referee, studying Criminal & Forensic Psychology. Thanks for writing this story for my blog


  • Barry Firmin

    As a referee, coach & Observer I firmly believe non verbal communication is important it helps you to communicate to a much bigger audience. Read any book on body language and it tells you the body cannot lie. For example if you are unsure of a decision it will show visualy, unlike a confidently presented signal you are 100% certain of. This article has many many good points well done Michael.

    • Jan ter Harmsel

      You’re welcome, Ephraim. Will tell him. Much appreciated that he reply and feel free to share it with your refereeing friends.

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