I have always been perplexed by the desire to become a referee, but now I understand.

Estimated read time 8 min read


“I understand now,” I exclaim with a touch too much enthusiasm as Bibi Steinhaus-Webb, the leader of women’s refereeing in England, takes a seat across from me. I had neglected to start recording our interview and nervously admit, “I can see the appeal of being a referee now.”

Prior to attending the select group women’s professional game training camp hosted by the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL), I couldn’t understand why someone would choose to become a referee. It seemed like a daunting job where every thought and decision would be scrutinized, analyzed, criticized, and rarely appreciated.

“Why would someone subject themselves to that?” I would ponder upon hearing the latest account of a referee facing abuse, whether in community leagues or professional matches. I understand that it is a challenging role that demands immense effort and resilience. However, I lacked firsthand experience of the job and failed to recognize its intricacies. I didn’t realize the precise balance of physical and mental agility needed. All I could compare it to is chess boxing, where competitors alternate between playing chess and boxing, but in this case, both tasks are performed simultaneously.

During one part of the training camp, I was seated in the back during a session about the new rules from the International Football Association Board (IFAB) regarding deliberate touches or deflections by defending players. These rules determine if an attacking player in an offside position is considered onside or not. As I sat there, a sudden thought came to mind: “I may not be physically fit and would probably not do well, but I have an intense desire to give it a try.” I quickly snapped out of that fleeting thought and refocused on the session at hand.

The IFAB regulation may not be widely favored, but the participants are currently deliberating the most effective way to put it into practice. We observe multiple video clips individually, and after each one, as it continuously plays, groups convene to debate whether the player’s contact with the ball was intentional. However, there is no unanimous agreement among the groups, as it is difficult to determine the player’s intent.

It is clear that these officials are required to quickly address and make a decision on the player’s intention in these situations, with a shorter time frame than the leisurely few minutes afforded by replays in this meeting room. Can I determine if there was intent or not? No.

“According to Steinhaus-Webb, even after 90 minutes and a high heart rate of 180, the referee must maintain the focus needed to make accurate decisions. She compares this to a marathon runner who is physically exhausted and unable to perform a complex math problem at the finish line. This highlights the importance of extensive training in order to remain mentally sharp.”

Referees take a fitness test at the PGMOL training camp

Match officials may need to follow a training routine similar to Taylor Swift’s before her Eras Tour. She would run on a treadmill for the entire three-hour concert, singing as she ran and adjusting the speed according to the song’s pace. “That’s the gist of it,” explains Steinhaus-Webb. “It’s a major aspect of what they have to do: physical and mental preparation, as well as technical preparation.”

Throughout the year, the PGMOL will organize various matches and tournaments in an effort to simulate a high-pressure game environment. However, according to Steinhaus-Webb, it is impossible to fully replicate the intensity of an elite level match, such as Arsenal vs. Chelsea at the Emirates stadium, with top level players. She compares this process to learning how to drive, where repetition and practice are necessary in order to eventually reach a point where it becomes second nature. This is the ultimate goal for referees.

I inquire with Kirsty Dowle, the referee who received applause from fans and was commended for her performance in the October men’s National League match between Southend United and Oxford City, about her method for practicing rule modifications.

According to her, while teams have the chance to practice and improve their skills every day, we do not have that luxury. However, weekends provide us with the opportunity to review videos and have discussions with one another. I am able to watch my past games and analyze my own performance. Although I am not physically playing, I am constantly processing and learning from these experiences so that when I do step onto the field, it is like I have already done it countless times before.

Regarding the surprising applause at Southend, Dowle states: “Initially, I was unaware that it was directed towards me and assumed the players were present. In all honesty, it was a successful day for the club with a 2-0 victory and the sale of the club in progress. I didn’t do anything particularly extraordinary; it all just aligned well for the club.”

Emily Carney at the PGMOL training camp

Dowle was able to quit her job and devote herself to refereeing full-time, but not everyone has that opportunity. This season, 15 out of 75 officials in women’s soccer have contracts that allow them to focus solely on refereeing. In the Women’s Super League, nearly half of the officials are in this fortunate position, according to Steinhaus-Webb. When they first started, the numbers were much lower, but now they are making progress and on track to reach a desirable level.

Individuals who are unable to work full-time are still maintaining high levels of professionalism with the help of a larger staff team, which has doubled in size since Steinhaus-Webb’s arrival three years ago. For Dowle, quitting her job has greatly improved her experience as a referee. She initially had concerns about the added pressure of relying on refereeing as her main source of income, but having enough time to rest, prepare, and review her games, as well as communicate with coaches, has been a positive change.

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Steinhaus-Webb and her colleagues are striving to provide support for individuals who are unable to commit full-time. For Lauren Whiteman, a physical education teacher and assistant referee in the women’s Championship, who is relatively new to the women’s select group, the additional assistance has been invaluable. “I have no complaints about the support I’ve received,” she remarks. “Previously, I went through my journey with some level of support, but not necessarily with a coach or someone I could brainstorm ideas with. However, this season has been completely different.”

Referee Rebecca Welch takes charge of the Premier League game between Fulham and Burnley at Craven Cottage

During this season, Whiteman has utilized communications for the first time, managed the lines for a televised game, and was selected to officiate the Manchester City versus Liverpool match in the Continental Cup. Whiteman admits that she was taken aback when she received the call informing her of the assignment. She describes the match as one of the most significant fixtures in which she could possibly participate. However, she was relieved that it went smoothly and was determined to make the most of the opportunity given to her.

Emily Carney, an assistant referee, has found success as a member of the development group established in 2022, which allows officials to advance to higher levels. She describes this opportunity as “highly gratifying”. Carney admits to not being a fan of referees when she was a young player, and her mother even told her she was “unpleasant to them”. However, it was her mother who encouraged her to take a course on the rules, leading to her rapid rise in the officiating world. Carney often travelled with Rebecca Welch and Sian Massey-Ellis as an international assistant, learning from their experience.

During this season, she has been officiating men’s EFL games. She explains, “When you transition, you feel a sense of responsibility to represent female match officials and their hopes.”

In December, Welch was given the opportunity to officiate the Premier League match between Fulham and Burnley as a result of her involvement with the development group. Steinhaus-Webb recalls feeling “goosebumps” while watching Welch during the game and only wishing for her success without any complications.

Steinhaus-Webb takes pride in the inclusion of five new match officials from England on the Fifa International List for 2024. Out of these five, four are from the women’s select group: Georgia Ball, Nicoleta Bria, Sophie Dennington, and Emily Heaslip. Currently, there are a total of 13 English women on the list.

During the final session about non-verbal communication, Steinhaus-Webb demonstrates a power pose by placing her hands on her hips. She then leads the group in a playful activity where they all stand up and mimic different hand positions and poses, while discussing the non-verbal messages they convey. Her lighthearted approach creates a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, which is a welcome change from the tense environment often experienced on match days.

“I thoroughly enjoy being a referee. Choosing to pursue this career has been the greatest decision of my life,” says Steinhaus-Webb. “I understand that it may be challenging for others to comprehend, but this is precisely why I invite you to see things from my perspective. I want to share my love and passion for refereeing and why it captured my heart.”

Source: theguardian.com

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