Being an Effective Assistant Referee
by Brian Goodlander
It is a well-accepted statement that referees are effective when they are not noticed during a match and have no effect on the match. That often makes the art of refereeing a thankless job.
When you do your job well, no one notices. And when you don’t do your job well, everyone notices. The art of being an effective assistant referee takes that conundrum to a higher level. The assistant referee is the quiet support for the referee. There are subtle and obvious signals when they assist in or support a referee’s decision. The role of the assistant referee is to assist without being noticed. Consequently, an effective assistant referee is often under-appreciated and unnoticed.
Contention. I submit that the art of being an effective assistant referee is one of the most difficult in the world of soccer officiating. Assistant referees are critical to the success or failure of the referee. They can either make the referee look very good and professional or they can make the best referee look lost and out of control. Recently, FIFA increased the responsibility of the assistant referees in recognition of their importance and, for that reason, there are some important factors that each assistant referee must strive to perfect.
Professionalism. Paramount to being an effective referee or assistant referee is to look and act the part of a professional. Too often, officials assigned as assistant referees to matches lower their standards since they are "just an assistant referee." That condescending attitude hurts the teamwork and the effectiveness of all referees in the match from the very beginning.
The modern assistant referee is doing more than just running a line and calling in- and out-of-touch in their quadrant. Today’s assistant referees are responsible for signaling foul play and misconduct outside the view of the referee, judging and signaling offside for a quicker and more explosive style of play and assisting the referee in wall management. On top of those responsibilities, assistant referees must be in sufficient physical condition to stay up with play by using sidestep movements, as well as being able to sprint from a dead stop the 50-plus yards from the halfway line to the goal-line.
Assistant referees must pay just as much attention to their appearance and mechanics as any referee. Assistant referees who roll up their sleeves to get more sun tan or decide that they do not need to wear the proper socks or jersey are not only cheating themselves but also the rest of the officiating team. Officials who are there to just get paid for 90 minutes of work do not belong on the pitch.
Pre-Game Discussion. While the referee drives the pre-game discussion, it is important that assistant referees ask questions for clarification. "Do you want a support flag in your quadrant or should I wait until you make eye contact?" You might also ask, "What signal do you want when the ball goes over the goal-line in your quadrant?" Experienced assistant referees may inquire, "Do you want me to stay with the offside on free kicks in the offensive third?" For the team to work effectively, all members must be tuned in to the same expectations. Getting straight on those expectations is a responsibility of all the team members.
Communication does not stop at the end of the pre-game discussion or after the halftime interval. Vigilance in keeping good eye contact helps assistant referees stay focused on their duties and assist the referee when help is needed. Hopefully, you have been in situations where all three referees are in perfect harmony. Eye contact is made and recognized at every stoppage of play. Signals are crisp, clean and not confusing. It is a beautiful thing to see and an absolute treat to be a part of such a trio during the match. Conversely, when signals are crossed between the assistant and the referee, it can be a disaster. When eye contact is not available because someone has lost their focus and distracted by actions outside the game, it hurts overall performance. When signals are missed or misunderstood, everyone feels like it was not a good performance and all too often, game control suffers. Short and simple get and demand clear instructions during the pre-game discussion and reinforce any miscommunications or doubts during the halftime interval.
Obvious and Subtle Mechanics. Effective assistant referees have studied and routinely use approved mechanics for the job at hand. A thorough knowledge of the Laws of the Game and the proper mechanics are vital to successful refereeing, whether it is as a referee or as an assistant. The assistant referee must remember to do not only the simple mechanics (e.g., face the field when signaling, keep the flag to the referee’s side, etc.) but also the more complex mechanics (e.g., the proper sequence of signals for an offside, signal for fouls in the penalty area, etc.).
Additionally, assistant referees must be physically able to stay with play and still be in proper position to judge offside, in- and out-of-touch and fouls in their quadrant. The best technique for handling those situations that involve all those complexities is the sidestep. When properly performed, the sidestep allows assistant referees to see the touchline, the players and still maintain position with the second-to-last defender. The art is to know when to transition from the sidestep to a sprint or from the sprint the sidestep. That skill takes some practice and persistence to develop to an effective level. Work on using perfect technique in your next assignment as an assistant referee. An important part of any mechanic is to remember to recognize the foul, take a breath, make eye contact with the referee, stop, face the field and make a clear and clean signal of the information to be shared.
Another important mechanic for assistant referees is communication with the players, coaches, and fans. Typically, as the referee, you might tell your assistant referees during the pre-game discussion to talk to players if it helps them to stop the players, coaches or fans from doing something that is inappropriate (I usually say "stupid"). Sometimes just saying "I saw that number 13! Cut it out!" is enough to prevent a problem. Or the assistant might advise, "OK coach, you made your point. Let it go." For a less-experienced coach, the assistant might offer, "M’am, the referee called an indirect free kick for a dangerous play. See the arm is up for the indirect kick?"
New Responsibilities. FIFA recognized that the role of the referee is very involved and that assistant referees can play a much more active part in assisting the referee. Consequently, FIFA has allowed assistants to become more involved in game management. Assistant referees are now directed to assist the referee in making foul calls when the referee may be blocked from seeing the incident. While this has been common practice in the U.S. for some time, it is the first time that it has been clearly stated as part of the role of the assistant referee by the global governing body.
Additionally, FIFA instructed assistant referees to go onto the pitch to assist the referee in situations where player violence against other players or the referee may be evident. Also, assistant referees have been asked to help the referee manage encroachment by the defense on free-kick situations in the assistant’s quadrant when it would require the referee to cross the field to do so. Prior to that advice, it was considered poor mechanics for the assistant to enter the field of play except at the beginning and end of each half.
Perfecting the Art. Make sure that in your next assignment you recognize the art of being an effective assistant referee. Perform those duties as an important part of the referee team. Or, if you’re the referee, give the respect deserved and needed by the assistant referees that are working with you.
(Brian Goodlander is a USSF Grade 7 referee and an assessor, a collegiate referee, a high school referee and a National Referee for Soccer Association for Youth (SAY) in Cincinnati. He is also a board member of the South West Ohio Soccer Officials Association [SWOSOA]).