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Referee’s body language: what (not) to do

Body language is very important for a referee. It helps you control the match and you can show you authority.

But there are things referees need to avoid. Just watch the video belown on YouTube. The referee is constantly walking with his hands in his pocket, which makes him look very odd.

But what are good things to do as referee. A few tips by Mark De Cosemo, expert in ‘influentioal communication’:

  • Make strong eye contact when you are speaking to a player.
  • Once you have made a decision, be quick and clear with your flag or hand signals.
  • Talk to players as you expect them to talk to you – be firm but respectful. Never swear. Use your tone of voice to convey authority, not arrogance.
  • Where you can, give players clarification on your decisions, but state this as fact from your point of view. Don’t allow your doubts to surface. Then move on, whatever you have decided it has gone.

Being respectful, also means that a referee should think about who he’s talking to. “Certain body language is linked to a certain culture and can lead to different interpretations”, says Swiss sports psychologist Mattia Piffaretti. “You might be misunderstood. You have to be aware of cultural differences.”

Qatari referee Khamis Al Marri gestures during a Qatar Stars League match.
Qatari referee Khamis Al Marri gestures during a Qatar Stars League match. Photo: Doha Stadium Plus (Creative Commons)
I’m not saying you do need to know all different cultures, but as referee you should be aware that some people could give another reaction than you expected. Be are that differences exist. An example when male referees have to officiate a women’s game: in the United States eye contact “is extremely important in conveying interest and attention. In many Middle Eastern cultures, intense eye contact between the same genders is often a symbol of trust and sincerity. however, between opposite genders, especially in muslim cultures, anything more than briefeye contact is considered inappropriate. ” Also think about your gestures, personal space and touching someone.

But why is this crucial for referees? Piffaretti:

  • Body language skill transcends language barriers;
  • It’s very useful in a noisy match environment where verbal communication can be difficult;
  • Body language can have an immediate effect, reducing the need for a referee to stop a match to address an issue verbally.
  • Sometimes it’s difficult to address players’ emotions in words, so the referee can use gestures instead.

And what do players want from a referee? Soccer players want competent, dependable, respectful referees, says researcher Peter Simmons. “These principles apply at all levels.”

But sometimes you can’t get respect with your body language. “For some players, who are intoxicated by revenge or rage (or substance!), referee communicative skill will have no influence, but that generally referee sensitivity to players and situations are doubtless important.”

Gay referee

You probably all have seen the “Gay Referee” on Youtube. If not, here he is:

One more advice from Piffaretti: “[Referees] use body language to enhance performance, show leadership, enhance game management skills such as mediating and creating a connection, and to win trust and respect from players.” And then he says: “But you don’t have to show off or exaggerate. You have to remain yourself.”


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