The psychology of a referee

After seeing some strange performances from officials this season at The Dripping Pan, Lewes Owner Barry Collins reveals what’s going through a referee’s mind when he’s making decisions on the pitch

Given the number of (arguably soft) penalties that have been awarded against The Rooks at The Pan this season, it might be tempting to believe the referees have it in for us. Tempting, but wrong. All of the available evidence suggests that Lewes should be benefitting from refereeing decisions more than any other team in the Ryman Premier. So what’s going wrong? It’s time to examine the psychology of a referee.

Home advantage

Several studies into the behaviour of referees from various sports have all reached the same conclusion: officials tend to favour the home team. As someone who was a referee – albeit only at Sunday League level – for more than a decade, those findings are about as shocking as the discovery of a Mars Bar in Russell Grant’s fridge.

Believe it or not, referees are no keener on an angry mob of people questioning their parentage than the average Joe. They’ve got their Mondeo parked in the car park, and their kit locked in the home dressing rooms. Human nature dictates that – even with every intention of refereeing the game fairly – the official will sub-consciously favour the home side.

A 2001 paper titled The influence of crowd noise and experience upon refereeing decisions in football decided to put this theory to the test. Several previous studies had shown a direct correlation between the size of the crowd and refereeing decisions, but the researchers aimed to prove the theory with a blind – or, more accurately, deaf – test.

The researchers recruited 40 qualified referees and showed them a series of video clips on which they were asked to make a decision. Half of the referees were shown the clips with the crowd noise on (without the match commentary), the other half watched in silence. “The presence or absence of crowd noise did have a dramatic effect on the decisions made by the qualified referees,” the study found. “The bias observed was in agreement with the hypothesis that the crowd is able to influence officiating. Those referees viewing challenges in the noise condition were more uncertain when making their decisions, and awarded significantly fewer fouls (15.5%) against the home team than the silent group.”

Referees may well feel the pressure when they’ve got 65,000 shirty Mancunians bellowing for a penalty at Old Trafford, but surely there’s less pressure to please the home crowd in front of only a few hundred people at The Pan? While many studies suggest that the home advantage is amplified by a larger crowd, it ain’t necessarily so…

A 1996 study of refereeing decisions published in The Journal of Sport Science reported that “the greatest home advantage in percentages of wins, away players being sent off, and home penalties scored, was not in the English Premier League but in the English First Division where crowd sizes were considerably less.” Indeed, if you look at this season’s figures on, the referees in League 2 (where average crowds are typically only in the low thousands) have handed 56% of yellow cards to the away team, compared to 55% for Premier League referees. The percentage of penalties awarded to home teams is almost identical in both divisions.

While The Pan might not appear as intimidating for referees as Old Trafford, it’s daunting in a different way. In huge stadiums, you’ll often hear players and officials “blocking out” the wall of noise emanating from the crowd; at a ground such as The Pan you’ll hear every last remark from the crowd.

Then comes the “big club” factor. Having just dropped down from the Blue Square South, and with an average home attendance that is two or three times that of most clubs in the division, Lewes may well be the biggest match Ryman-level referees officiate all season. For those climbing the refereeing ladder, it may be the biggest match of their career. As ex-referee Graham Poll stated in a recent article in The Daily Mail: “I don’t believe that any referee consciously goes out to give soft penalties against small teams but I know that they only give stone wall penalties against the biggest ones.”

What’s more, younger, inexperienced referees – several of which we’ve seen officiating at The Pan this season – are statistically more likely to favour the home side. “Years of experience had a significant effect on the number of fouls awarded by the referees against the home players, increasing with years of experience until a peak at approximately 16 years,” found that 2001 study.

Turning the referee

So, given these statistical advantages, why we have seen so many controversial penalties and other decisions go against us at The Pan this year?

One factor might be the reaction of the players. On referees’ training courses you are told to watch for “tells” – indications of a player’s guilt. The most obvious is a player pleading his innocence by holding his arms aloft when an opponent tumbles in front of him, as Rooks defenders did for both penalties conceded in the 4-0 home defeat to Hornchurch (look up the videos on YouTube if you can bear it). It may be a sub-conscious reaction, it may be unfair, but players that make legitimate challenges don’t usually feel the need to protest their innocence.

Dissent – from players and managers alike – can also bring out a referee’s stubborn streak. With an assessor often sitting in the stands, referees and their assistants are keen to show that they won’t be swayed by the more vocal participants. With The Rooks not exactly soaring in the Ryman Fair Play League, it may be that players and management are talking themselves out of decisions.

The negative effect dissent can have on officials is summed up beautifully by former England rugby hooker, Brian Moore, who took a referee’s course two years ago in penance for his criticism of the whistleblowers from the pundit’s chair. “If a captain is clever he will pressure a referee with gentle suggestions which, although seemingly inoffensive and indeed helpful, will be regular and will contrast to the open challenges the referee might receive from the opposition,” Moore wrote of his brief stint with the whistle. “In this way a subconscious store of goodwill accrues which can come out in the way that the 50/50 decisions are made.”

Of course, our recent run of questionable decisions could be down to nothing more than pure hard luck. But it would certainly do no harm if – the next time you see a 50/50 penalty decision – you appeal loudly from the crowd, and not quite as vociferously if you’re lucky enough to be on the pitch.

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