Shooting yourself in the foot: How anger and aggression aimed at sports officials impacts upon performance

This weekend has seen an unprecedented step taken by amateur football referees in the UK. 18-year old local football referee Ryan Hampsen has led the ‘striking’ of over 2000 local league referees in response to the foul and abusive behaviour they are often exposed to on a weekly basis. This has been further compounded by the high profile case of Leandro Bacuna. The Aston Villa utility player was sent off in last week’s game against Derby County for pushing the linesman following a disagreement (on Bacuna’s part) relating to a decision given by the official. The Football Association then increased the automatic 1-game ban to 6 games due to the nature of the incident.

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This behaviour by Bacuna was stupid for a number of reasons. First, there are very few (if any) examples of a referee in football changing their mind after they have made a decision, so ‘having a go’ at the officials makes no difference. However, this statement is not strictly true, as being abusive towards the officials has the potential to backfire by subconsciously impacting upon decision making. While I was at the University of Gloucestershire (UoG) we ran an experiment working with the rugby first team. All of the UoG team were continually encouraged to be respectful and gracious in their dealings with the officials – and crucially not to dispute decisions. What we found was that as the game progressed (and the opposition continued to verbally abuse the referee), borderline decision started to go our way, so abusing the officials has an implicit effect against you. The second reason why getting angry at the officials is counter productive is that it fosters negative emotions such as anger and frustration, which do not facilitate high levels of performance. So while you are potentially influencing the officials against you are also limiting your own performance. Finally, attributing failure and hardship to an external source (in this case the referee) can also be problematic, as you have no control over what the officials do. If you believe they are negatively impacting upon your performance there is nothing you can do to change that. Where as controlling the way you reaction to decisions is in your control, and as a result can be more facilitative.

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I am full of admiration and respect for those officials across all sports who give their time (usually voluntarily) to enable people at all levels to participate. They do not deserve, and should be subjected to any kind of abuse. This is obviously an important moral and social issue, but crucially is also a performance issue. Individual who engage in these behaviours are limiting their own performance and need to develop their emotional regulation and self control skills in order to perform to their potential.

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