Tips for effective headset communication for referees

The importance of effective headset communication for referees was made extra clear during a recent friendly. It was my first time ever with headsets. In the beginning I had to get used to it, but in the end it went well. This blog gives you some tips to keep your headset communication effective.

Me with a headset

In The Netherlands lots of games are officiated with club assistant referees. That makes them not suitable for intensive communication, because they are not neutral. This time, however, is different. It is a friendly game and my center referee has headsets. She and the other assistant referee use them more often. Before the game they give me some tips, but  it is difficult in the beginning.

Althought I make the right calls, I realise my sentences are a bit too long. “That ball has crossed the line”. Or: “I can’t see who deserves the throw-in.” Why not say the word “out” in the first example? When it’s not sure who has to throw, there are more and shorter options. Say things like “You, Who? or help”. Despite some agreements before the game, I had to get used to it. That grows. The second half is easier and I notice less or no odd phrases.

The advantages of headsets

  • Better and easier to communicate with assistants with controversial decisions
  • Quicker decision-making
  • Better team work
  • There’s always an option to get advice


Tips for effective headset communication

But this first time got me thinking about effective headset communication and here are some clear tips for you.

  1. Keep it short. The less you say, the better you can communicate.
  2. Make agreements before the game about words you’ll use. Which word will you use when you don’t know? Try to avoid different phrases to tell the same. Repetition of the same phrases goes better than using different words with the same meaning.
  3. Ask and give confirmation. It gives a strong feeling if you can confirm a call by the referee. But make sure how you communicate it. With background noise or more people talking, you might miss something. Saying “no foul” is gets a different meaning if the “no” doesn’t come trough. Be smart and say “go on” or “well done”.
  4. Be precise. Saying just the fact that a player fouls his opponent is not enough. “Foul” is not specific enough. Mention who the offender is. Or if two players run after a long ball and one of them was in offside position. A headset gives assistant referees the option to inform the referee about this. Then he or she knows when play has to stop and the flag signal for offside doesn’t come as a surprise then.
  5. Keep talking and communicating. Don’t mention unnecessary things, but what if a player blocks your view. On my blog is a case study with Bjorn Kuipers about this subject. “You can think that you are the referee who has to make the decisions”, says Björn. “I’m close to the situation, why are they talking to me via their headsets. But as referee you should take into account that it’s a possibility that someone suddenly blocks your view.” So keep in contact. If you constantly give advice, you’ll be more alert. A request for information willl not come as a surprise. Check the case study with Bjorn Kuipers.

What are your experiences with headsets? What tips and suggestions do you have for others? Share them, because it will help others!

Jan with effective headset communication


  • Samuel Ranz

    I am a division 6 football referee in Spain. This is my fourth season at this step of the ladder, and I use headsets in every game since season two. As this is the lowest level you are helped by assistants in my region, I didn’t use them during my first year as I wanted to learn how to officiate without. So here comes my first tip: don’t rely heavily on them; use them as a helping tool, but not as something you can’t officiate without.

    Some extra tips are the following:
    ·Keep looking at your assistants. Headsets will be useful for them to let you know when you don’t have to (e.g. when they tell you that a player is onside or that the ball is in). But, if you don’t understand what they tell you, look at them. Tell them to flag as usual.
    ·I’m not a fan of saying who takes the following throw-in by saying their colours, but I rather respect the best positioned man’s view. If a player touches the ball and you think the other one might not have realised, just say it. Or say ‘I call’. Others use colours and it works for them.
    ·Never, ever use negations (describe what happens rather than what does not), and avoid easily confusable words. And have clear dynamics arranged before the game. For instance, I use the following three voice commands for offside: continue (everyone’s onside), attention (an offside player may play the ball), and offside (the offence has actually taken place and the AR has his flag up). Where the attention command is used and an onside player may also play the ball, the AR will, if possible, tell clearly who’s onside for the referee to act more swiftly.
    ·Help your assistants, even with offside calls: if the defence play the ball deliberately and you know it, why wouldn’t you let your AR know that he should forget about offside during this action? Use a simple word for that, like ‘enabled’.
    ·Ask your assistants to give feedback proactively on calls. It doesn’t help much if one says ‘yellow’ and the other one says ‘red’ when a foul has taken place. Ask them before the game to tell you what they see, e.g. that the challenger hit the opponent’s knee with the studs.
    ·Co-decision gets even better at the moment of playing the advantage. An AR can tell the ref that he’s spotted the foul, but that he’s holding the call for advantage. How? ‘Attention, foul’ may be an useful command -at least, it works for me. It gives the referee some extra seconds to find a better position if the advantage takes place, thus being able to correctly make the next decision.
    ·Your assistants may well tell you how they see you in some aspects: how are you positioning yourself? are you taking too much time to run in a counter? how do they find your signals? who is making them nasty remarks?
    ·Assistants may also help each other in controlling club officials and substitutes. When the action is on AR1’s side, AR2 will typically be near the halfway line and AR1 will be far away from the benches. This seems the right moment for coaches to protest or to stand up more than one person at a time. So AR2 might well tell AR1 what happens, so AR1 will better control them.

    By the way, great post!

  • Alexander Miller

    Good equipment for the team But for referees and assistants rerferees just starting out they should go back to basics of the referee looking at the assistant and looking for the flag .A lot of money when your are just starting out in the refereeing world . My opinion basics first and then the communication kit later .

    • Samuel Ranz

      I’m begged to differ, even though I must say that you have a point.

      I started out as AR helping very experienced referees. We did use communicators in our first lines, but not in the way you may expect. It was more a way for the referee to help us run the line better (some on-the-spot remarks proved quite useful at the moment) than eny other thing. I honestly think that this is the best way, as quite experienced referees were telling me week in week out how to do things better. When they were realising that I was ready to assume more responsibilities, they were telling me during the match, for instance, letting me take the initiative to call clear fouls. Sometimes they used the communicator to tell me to hold a call or to leave that one to them.

      In general, I think I learnt better thanks to a proper use of headsets for learning purposes. Suffice it to say, that’s a far cry from the use we currently do 7 years after, officiating fairly more challenging games than we used to.

  • Jayden

    This season was my first using comms regularly. I was surprised to realise how much more valuable your assistant referees can be. I would say on average there were 3 or 4 decisions made during a game that wouldn’t have been made if we didn’t have comms. A great tool for referees. It’s also very fun.

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