Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
ISSN: 1303 - 2968   
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Androit-APP Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
from September 2014
©Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2006) 05, 243 - 253

Research article
Soccer Referee Decision-Making: ‘shall I Blow the Whistle?’
Andrew M. Lane , Alan M. Nevill, Nahid S. Ahmad, Nigel Balmer
Author Information
University of Wolverhampton, UK

Andrew M. Lane
✉ School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure, University of Wolverhampton, UK.
Publish Date
Received: 30-10-2005
Accepted: 06-04-2006
Published (online): 01-06-2006
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Evidence points to the existence of a home advantage effect in soccer with referees giving more decisions to the home team being a plausible explanation for this effect. The purpose of the present study was to use qualitative methods to explore the factors that influence experienced referees when making decisions. Five experienced referees volunteered to participate in semi-structured interviews of 30-40 minutes duration. Examples of questions/probes included ‘Are there times when it is difficult to make a decision on whether there was a foul or not? When? Why?’ and ‘Do you worry about making the wrong / unpopular decision? What affect does this have on you?’ Content analysis identified 13 inter-related themes that describe four higher-order themes. The themes ‘accuracy-error’, ‘regulations’, and ‘professionalism’ form a higher-order theme labeled ‘ideal-decision making’. The themes ‘opinion’, ‘concentration’, and ‘control’ represent a higher- order theme labeled ‘individual factors’; ‘experience’, ‘personality’, and ‘personal life’ represent a higher-order factor labeled ‘experience factors’, and crowd factors, player reaction, environmental factors, and crowd interaction represent a higher-order factor labeled ‘situational factors’. Findings from the present study offer some insight into difficulties and coping strategies used by referees to perform consistently in professional soccer. Future research could use quantitative methods to test the relative contribution of themes identified above to the decision-making process in referees. At an applied level, practitioners should develop strategies that accelerate the process of learning to cope with performance-related stressors such as the crowd noise.

Key words: Soccer, bias, home-advantage, stress, performance

           Key Points
  • Five experienced described factors associated with decision making in soccer leading to the identification of 13 inter-related themes that describe four higher-order themes.
  • Higher order themes include ideal-decision making’, ‘individual factors’, ‘experience factors’, and ‘situational factors’.
  • Findings from the present study offer some insight into difficulties and coping strategies used by referees to perform consistently in professional soccer.
  • Practitioners should develop strategies that accelerate the process of learning to cope with performance-related stressors.


Imagine a scenario of 70,000 supporters watching a soccer game; the home team defender lunges into the path of a shooting forward; the forward falls down, the ball bobbles away, and the crowd raw ‘dive’. Does the referee blow the whistle and give a penalty, or does he waive play on and so avoid giving a contentious decision, or does he penalize the forward for simulation? Would the referee give the same decision if the home team forward fell and the crowd called for a penalty? A wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests referees give decisions in favor of the home team. Statistical examination of game records indicates home teams win more often than away teams; home teams are awarded more penalties and receive less bookings (Nevill et al., 1996). A great deal of research has investigated the home advantage phenomena. Research has typically involved examination of the type of sports in which it occurs (see Balmer et al., 2001; Nevill et al., 1996; 1997; 2002; Nevill and Holder, 1999). A summary of the findings from these studies indicates that home advantage can be found in sports where the referees’ decisions can influence the result, such as soccer and boxing. For example, in a study of the number of penalties awarded to home teams in the English and Scottish Leagues, results showed clear evidence that home teams with large crowds receive more penalties, and away teams are penalized with more players being sent off, etc (Nevill et al., 1996). In a quest to identify factors associated with crowd noise, Nevill and colleagues (2002) conducted experimental research in which participants are asked to give decisions in the presence and absence of a vociferous crowd. It should be explained that participants do not actually interact with the crowd, but are asked to give decisions to incidents on a video-taped game. Nevill et al., 2002 used forty qualified referees who viewed an edited videotaped game between Liverpool v Leicester City, played at Liverpool in the season 1999-2000. Immediately after one of 47 challenges, the presentation was stopped for six seconds. In this time, the referees were asked to adjudicate whether the challenge was a foul or not, and if a foul, to which team the decision should be awarded. Half the referees watched the videotape with crowd noise audible and the other half in silence. Results showed that the referees who watched the game with audible crowd noise gave significantly fewer decisions against the home team, hence supporting the notion that referees consistently give decisions in favor of the home team (Nevill et al., 1999; 2002).

Although focus of interest was how referees are pressurized by crowd noise in a real soccer match, these studies were conducted in a laboratory rather than a real-life setting (Balmer et al., 2006; Nevill et al., 2002). While this line of research is commendable in terms of attempting to control potentially confounding variables, it lacks ecological validity, which represents a serious limitation to the applicability of the findings to practice. Investigating the influence of crowd noise on referees’ decision-making in ecological valid settings is difficult. As soccer is an open sport, it is extremely difficult to effectively compare decisions made in one game to decisions made in a different game. Balmer et al. (2006) suggested that the process of decision-making under crowd pressure might be explored further through a qualitative research design, so as not to overlook key issues that may be missed in a quantitative experiment. Furthermore, the importance of subjective decision-making to the home advantage, which previous quantitative research has uncovered (Balmer et al., 2001; Nevill et al., 1997; 2002), may be more readily explored through qualitative methods which can account for such subjectivities.

It is also important to explain the value of conducting ecologically valid research in the home advantage. Sport psychology is about real-life applied settings, and is well suited to qualitative research that relies on data from referees themselves within a real-life context. Tindall, 1994 suggested how qualitative research encourages participants to speak for themselves and allows for valid theory development. Tindall (1994, p 142) suggested:

Marshall and Rossman, 1999 discuss how qualitative researchers can account for possible weaknesses in terms of lack of external validity, by stating the theoretical parameters of research, and thus tying the methods used into theory. Hence, there may be transferability of findings (and therefore external validity) to other research and policy making within these same theoretical parameters. As much as qualitative research is rigorous, it also acknowledges the influence of the researcher, for scientific research is intimately involved with researcher subjectivity (Ratner, 2002). This is largely overlooked within quantitative methods even though these too are intertwined with researcher subjectivity. Indeed the very decision to choose one method over another is highly subjective (Salmon, 2003). Another point that lessens the divide between qualitative and quantitative methods is that made by Marshall and Rossman, 1999, who proposed that all research is difficult to replicate because the context of research, ‘real life’ is forever changing.

Interviewing techniques can be used to identify themes (or constructs) that referees utilize to construe the world of soccer refereeing. With the use of rigorous analytical procedures, the themes identified can be explained in terms of how they have been developed, and how they are used to structure the world of referees. Interview transcripts were analyzed by drawing out the themes associated with referee decision-making. The main decision of interest is whether to blow the whistle or not in order to determine whether a foul has been committed. The process that governs this decision is the object of interest for this paper, for it is up until this point that referees are operating in a subjective manner, hence open to referee interpretation. After this point, the referee will attempt to apply the letter of the law.

The purpose of the present study was to explore themes that referees perceive to influence decision-making in soccer using qualitative methods.



Participants were five male referees (Age: M = 43.60, SD = 11.19; Age ranged from 28-55 yrs) with an average refereeing experience of 21.6 years (SD = 7.89). The time elapsed since last refereeing a match ranging from 1 day to five years. Four of the five participants had some experience of professional refereeing, with one participant being a full-time professional referee.

Interview schedule

An interview schedule was developed and piloted on a retired referee with over 20 years of experience of refereeing in the Football League. The resultant interview schedule comprised questions and probes such as:

Content analysis procedures were based on recommendations by Krippendorff, 1980. Data analysis steps included unitizing, sampling, recording, data reduction, inference, and analysis. A thematic content analysis was conducted to identify themes related to decision-making processes of referees. The process was repeated by a second researcher, before consistent themes were identified and agreed.


Interview data produced a great deal of information. To effectively present the experiences of participants, a considerable amount of the data will be reported in the form of direct quotations. Table 1 presents the number of referees who described each theme, the number of comments made, and the percentage of units that describe each theme. As Table 1 indicates, 13 themes were identified with six themes being identified by all referees (crowd factors, accuracy/error, experience, regulations, opinion, and concentration/avoidance) and three themes being identified by 4/5 referees (player reaction, control, and Professionalism). A further four themes (personality; personal life; environmental factors and crowd interaction), were identified by either two or three of the five referees. The following sections describe each of the 13 themes shown in Table 1 in detail.

Theme 1 - Crowd factors

The theme crowd factors describe how crowds may influence decisions in an indirect manner, in cases where referees do not intend to make decisions based on crowd factors. This can be illustrated by the following quotes:

The crowd may not necessarily impact on decisions at larger matches, but may be just as powerful, if not more so, at smaller matches:

Theme 2 - Accuracy / error

The theme accuracy derives from perceptions that referees can give an objectively correct decision. Incorrect decisions are perceived as inaccurate and errors. Referees discussed the nature of accuracy and error at some length, explaining the nature of the theme.

Accuracy could be verified through the aid of technology, video-recorded matches, and assistant referees. A wrong decision can thus be traced to logical reasons such as speed or not being in the ‘optimum viewing angle’. The perception of accuracy in decision-making suggests that all decisions are black and white, and that there is little room for discrepancy:

However, inaccuracy may not always be traceable to logical reasons:

Perhaps in times like this, where reasons unknown to the referee cause inaccuracies, other pressures may become prevalent in influencing decision-making:

Acknowledging bad decisions or mistakes is done through equating error to ‘human’ tendencies:

Accepting mistakes as human error shows an effective method of coping with the pressure that is inherent in trying to maintain accuracy; if referees like all humans make errors of judgment then wrong decisions are inevitable, and therefore to some degree, referees are excused of the responsibility of error. Another coping mechanism is maintaining honesty in the face of inaccurate decisions:

Theme 3 - Experience

The theme experience could be a part of a number of other themes. It clearly interacts with many other themes, for example, experience can help to reduce inaccuracies in the face of difficult situations.

Also interacting with crowd themes, experience can help moderate the pressure of larger crowds:

Theme 4 - Regulations

The theme titled regulations describes attempts to provide greater consistency in football and have impacted greatly on how referees make decisions:

The greater stringency of regulations in the game is not universally celebrated:

This often results in conflict between the themes of ‘regulations’ and ‘opinion’:

Theme 5 - Opinion

There is interplay between the themes of opinion and regulations, as individual situations, contexts and referees require a unique balance between the two:

Whilst there is a certain level of subjectivity within each of the themes, this is most noticeable in the factor of ‘opinion’. Although regulations are continually becoming more stringent, there is always room for opinion, and the subjectivity that this brings with it:

’Man management’ which denotes ‘common sense’ is the epitome of referee opinion, where it is viewed as one end of a continuum, with ‘regulations’ as the other end. Referee style can be at either of these extremes, or at any point between the two, and it is this that defines individual differences between referees:

Everybody’s got different styles. And there are guys that use a lot of man management skills and there’s some that are just to the letter of the law. Some might have six, seven yellow cards in the game, others might have two. But at the end of the day. It’s in the opinion of the referee.

The ‘opinion’ factor also encompasses guessed or instinctual decisions, which are aided by how experienced a referee is:

As well as interacting with experience, opinion may interact with crowd pressure, where larger crowd sizes and television coverage may influence a greater reliance on opinion as opposed to the regulations:

Theme 6 - Concentration/ Avoidance

Another coping strategy which is used in the face of crowd pressure, is avoiding it’s existence through concentration on the match:

Theme 7 - Player reaction

Player reaction can act as a factor in influencing decisions directly:

Players can also be an important influencing factor in admitting inaccuracies after a decision has been made:

Theme 8 - Control

The influence on decisions may be a direct result of how threatened the referee’s control of the game is:

Control in the form of self-composure also interacts with crowd themes in the form of a coping strategy:

Ultimately, referee confidence is indicative of competence and accuracy:

This extract shows how players can doubt their own beliefs when faced with a confident referee who is opposing their beliefs.

Theme 9 - Professionalism

A coping strategy which is particularly used in the face of inaccuracies, is the strategy of remaining professional through perseverance:

Theme 10 - Personality

Personality was perceived to be a factor which affects the way that decisions are made:

Theme 11 - Personal life

The personal life of referees may at some unconscious level impact upon how a referee makes decisions:

Theme 12 - Environmental factors

These include external themes such asweather or difficulties traveling to a game:

Theme 13 - Crowd Interaction

In coping with crowd pressures, referees may adopt strategies of winning the crowd over, either through humor or through making the reasons for the decision explicit:


The aim of the present study was to explore referee’s perceptions of referring professional soccer. Qualitative techniques were employed to allow for full exploration of the issue, although it could be argued that the research question derives from findings from quantitative research (Nevill et al., 1996; 1997; 2002; Nevill and Holder, 1999). The interview schedule was developed to explore decision-making in soccer refereeing with a particular focus on crowd noise. The proposal that crowd noise is an explanation for home advantage has been forwarded based on correlational evidence from official statistics (see Nevill et al., 1996). Experimental tests of home advantage have lent support to the notion that referees tend to favor the home team, as a possible explanation for the influence of crowd noise (Nevill et al., 1999; 2002)

Qualitative data yielded 13 themes relevant to decision-making in soccer. We have developed a theoretical framework to explain how these themes interrelate in Figure 1. We suggest that three themes (accuracy-error, regulations, and professionalism) are central to the mindset of referees, and these themes form a higher-order theme, labeled ideal-decision making. The desire to give the correct decision, which is the correct interpretation of the rules (correct being an unquestionable or a decision on a which a consensus of referees would give the same decision), was expressed strongly by all referees. Further, although referees acknowledged the potential for other themes, such as crowd noise, or concentration, to influence decision-making, the weight of qualitative evidence suggests that the dominant themes were based on giving the ideal decision.

We suggest that opinion, concentration, and control represent a higher-order theme labeled individual themes, experience, personality, and personality life represent a higher order factor labeled experience themes. Crowd themes, player reaction, environmental themes, and crowd interaction represent a higher order factor labeled situational themes. It is argued that these sources provide additional information to ideal-decision making. If a referee has to process information from 13 different themes simultaneously before making a decision, this increases the likelihood of some decisions being inappropriately biased by situational themes or individual themes. However, it should be emphasized that whilst referees acknowledged errors due to human error, which is a legitimate concern given the limitations of our perceptual systems (Craven, 1998, Sanabria et al., 1998). They explained methods through which they learn to combat inaccurate decisions.

Results of the present study indicate that referees reported a strong desire to referee games appropriately, strictly performing to the rules and regulations and being free from error. It could be argued that qualitative results showing the dominance of correct application of the rules derive reflect referee-training courses that emphasize learning the rules. Results also show the number of potential stressors faced by referees. Previous research has emphasized that aspects of refereeing is stressful (Anshel and Weinberg, 1999; Kaissidis and Anshel, 1993; Kaissidis-Rodafinos et al., 1997; Stewart and Ellery, 1998; Taylor, 1990). Balmer et al. (2006) went on to demonstrate that increased anxiety associated with crowd noise was associated with inconsistent decisions. Therefore, it is argued that anticipating giving incorrect decisions (according to the referee’s perception of a correct decision) would lead to anxiety and stress. We suggest that referees should also be taught coping strategies to deal with crowd noise and internal distracters such as concentration.

An important aspect of experimental work by Balmer et al. (2006) is the notion of inconsistent decisions, that is, participants gave different decisions to the same incident. Findings from the present study showing the importance referees place on giving the correct decision, and the degree of reflection and analysis of performance that occurs post-game, suggest that inconsistency in performance is an equal concern for referees. Previous work has suggested that inconsistent decision-making is attributed to crowd noise (Balmer et al., 2004). A limitation of previous research is that it has not identified the typical within-subject variation in the same conditions. Nevill et al., 2002 compared two groups in which group 1 gave decisions in silence and group 2 gave decisions with crowd noise. Balmer et al. (2006) attempted to control for within-subject variation by having participants perform in both conditions (crowd noise and silence). Evidently, research has not tested the variation in performance by comparing two decision-making performance in the same condition (silence vs silence and crowd noise vs crowd noise), and future research should account for this limitation.

It is suggested that future research should test the influence of themes identified in the present study using quantitative methods. It is of course possible to use findings from the present study as the basis for more quantitatively based research. An interesting approach extending this line of research would be to explore referee reasons for giving each decision on a decision-by-decision basis, following a similar methodology used by Nevill et al., 2002. It is suggested that referees watch a videotaped game in two experimental conditions: One experimental condition involves referees watching a match with crowd noise, and the other condition involves watching a match in silence. We suggest that themes identified as relevant for referee decisions making should be used to develop a short self-report measure for use in experimental work. To facilitate such a line of investigation, we have proposed the Referee Performance Scale (RPS: see Appendix 1), which is a 9-item scale principally designed to assess individual themes and ideal- decision making themes (see Figure 1). We suggest that comparing referee decisions between crowd noise and silent conditions on scores on the RPS might highlight the nature of agreement and disagreement associated with refereeing the same game in different conditions. It is suggested that research of this nature could cast light on reasons for home advantage in soccer.


In conclusion, interview results provide insight into the thought processes and associated themes related to decision-making in soccer. We suggest that future research tests the extent to which these findings hold using a quantitative methodology. It is argued that confirming findings identified by qualitative research in quantitative studies would provide a strong foundation for developing education programs designed to teach referees to cope with situational stressors such as crowd noise.


Journal of Sports Science and Medicine Andrew M. Lane
Employment: Professor in Sport and Exercise Psychology, School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure, University of Wolverhampton, UK.
Degree: BA, PGCE, MSc, PhD
Research interests: Mood, emotion, measurements, coping, and performance.

Journal of Sports Science and Medicine Alan M. Nevill
Employment: Professor in Sport and Exercise Psychology, School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure, University of Wolverhampton, UK.
Degree: PhD
Research interests: Mood, emotion, measurements, coping, and performance.

Journal of Sports Science and Medicine Nahid S. Ahmad
Employment: Division of Psychology, University of Wolverhampton, UK.
Degree: BA, MSc
Research interests: Counselling, qualitative methods

Journal of Sports Science and Medicine Nigel Balmer
Employment: Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, UK.
Degree: BSc, PhD
Research interests: Home advantage effects.
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