Refereeing is more strenuous than some full-blown sports

How often do you stop watching a game and just think about how tired soccer players are? Not that often, right? Especially if you’re watching a big-league game — the best of the best. Those people are paid huge amounts of money to not be tired. Yet sometimes, close to the end of play, if you look closely enough you’ll see a few players slouching, maybe even feel the tempo of the game go a gear lower.

But how often do you stop watching a game of soccer and think about how tired that referee might be?

Data from MLTJ Journal published last year shows that European refs run up to a whopping 12 km per match, while linesmen go about half that distance. Keep in mind that these people follow the play spatially (not just visually); so during the past two decades — as the game pace has gone up, the distance ran by refs has increased. And while players have the ever-present option of being substituted during a match, refs don’t have this benefit. They’re the first to get on the pitch and the last to leave it.

Referees mirror the pattern of movement depicted by the teams they’re keeping under control. Most referee movement during an average European game is categorized as jogging (moving from a relatively breezy 7 km/h to 14 km/h) — and the least distance covered is done by sprinting (over 25 km/h).

Referees have to be in the right place at the right time in a space of 7100 (roughly, since pitch sizes differ a lot) square meters. This serves two purposes: the obvious one is to ensure that fair play is maintained and the rules enforced. Everybody’s seen a player take a fake dive during a soccer game — and while the folks at home have the advantage of seeing the event happening multiple times, sometimes in slow motion and from a multitude of angles, referees don’t have such perks. They must make the right call on the first go. And they do it with surprising accuracy.

Stats from the English Premier League show that over 99% of referee calls are spot on — although there could be more to this. A study from the Department of Movement Sciences in São Paulo found that ref accuracy is influenced by the distance kept to the action — so the closer you get, the better your calls if you’re enforcing the rules.

Good viewing angles make for good decisions.

Another, less obvious reason why refs need to be in the right place is that their watchful eye makes sure players don’t injure each other out on the pitch. Although hard to quantify, referee vigilance has been shown to be one of the most important methods of injury prevention in professional soccer.

Now, a ref’s job is to be at the intersection of ‘real-time’ and ‘future’ play, all the while keeping a good eye out for what’s happening both to the ball and to the players. Linesmen help out with this — since they’re always on level with the most forward striker and make most ball-related calls — but both types of refs must guide play by the book while not interrupting the game and attracting the least attention possible.

Referees with more experience tend to keep 20 meters from the ball.

Good viewing angles make for good decisions. Refs have to judge what’s going on with the ball and the players, and foresee where the ball is headed so as to be able to follow it. They have to play it smart and be able to walk, jog, run, sprint and shift directions (sometimes radically) at all times when the ball is moving.

High-speed movement is less common in second halves of play time — a time when, statistically, refs make better calls. This might come as no surprise — since slower movement means referees can position themselves in good viewing spots more often. But it seems that what kicks off better refereeing is not just reduced physical effort, but increased self-esteem.

The British Psychological Society published a paper in 2013 that detailed how soccer referees (both new and experienced) think they’re better than their peers — which explains how they cope with the stress and pressure of their difficult jobs. Further research has detailed how refereeing quality increases during game time as refs realize that they’re making right calls, hence increasing their self-esteem.

Still, the best referees rarely slow down because they’re tired themselves. Studies show that referees with more experience tend to keep closer to the ball, maxing out at an about 20 meters. While we could think that experience breeds competence so that the more one is a referee the more he sticks to the ball, it’s more arguable that people that stick to the ball have the chance to become experienced in the first place.

Refs normally start out with grade 8 qualifications and move up rank if they’re good enough, becoming at first linesmen for the immediately upper level and then full referees. And while it’s true that physical standards for linesmen are less difficult to attain, these people still have to be pretty fit.

In most European countries refereeing won’t pay the bills.

While the minimum age for top competition refereeing is around 25, the max is set by FIFA regulations at 45 years of age — which means that two decades is the most one can hope to be on the pitch — which also means that you’d have to be good at this if you’d want to become a top-level referee.

But while soccer players have huge contracts and entire teams of specialists on hand at any time for anything related to their performance (from fitness to nutrition, psychic condition and even trifle things like how they groom themselves), referees lack such perks.

In fact, in most European countries refereeing won’t pay the bills. Referees tend to keep day jobs and have to make time for private physical training so as to be able to keep up with professional soccer players while on the pitch.

Top level refs need to pass intense physical tests which factor in both their speed and their stamina. According to FIFA, the speed test consists of completing six 40 meter sprints, each having a cap time of only 6.2 seconds. Stamina is measured by running 150 meters in half a minute and then walking 50 meters in 35 seconds x 20. That’s right, the process is repeated 20 times.

And if all this wasn’t convincing enough, English Premier League reports show that referees put in more grit than most players — averaging out at 176 high speed runs (not quite sprints, but over 20km/h) whereas players scored 175.

That doesn’t mean referees are immune to biases. In 2007 Harvard proved that referees are sometimes influenced by crowds and might contribute to a team’s advantage based on this. A 2008 study also showed how a referee’s split-second decision might favor teams that wear red uniforms, and in 2010 it was shown by Dutch researchers that taller players were more likely to be accused by refs of committing fouls than average or short players. It looks like referees are still humans — but maybe less than the average individual — since they still make astoundingly correct calls under circumstances that might even make other athletes lose their composure.

Data from FIFA concerning World-Cup performance shows players averaging out at 11 km per game. But to put things into perspective, here’s a list of how much players run in major sports:

So while it might be true that it’s harder to run with a ball around your legs, and it’s more physically stressing to keep up a high average speed (since players’ average speed at top-level competitions — according to FIFA again — is above 20 km/h) — the fact that most referees are usually one decade the senior of the players on field, and yet run more distance in the same amount of time (and with little to no sponsorship support) makes their feat of physical prowess all the more impressive.

Thanks for reading.

  • Muscles Ligaments Tendons J. 2011 Jul-Sep; 1(3): 106–111. Published online 2012 Feb 15.
  • Verheijen R, Oudejans R, Beek PJ. Factors affecting decision making of soccer referees. In: Spinks W, editor. Fourth World Congress of Science and Football. Sydney: University of Technology Sydney; 1999. p. 28.
  • Castagna C, Abt G, D’Ottavio S. Activity profile of international level soccer referees during competitive matches. J Strength Cond Res. 2004;18:486–490.
  • (Document database)
  • Referee Grades. United States Soccer Federation.
  • USSF Referee Grades Explained. US Youth Soccer. 2012.
  • Call Accuracy and Distance from the Play: A Study with Brazilian Soccer Referees MARIO CESAR DE OLIVEIRA, ROGERIO ORBETELLI, and TURIBIO LEITE DE BARROS NETO — Department of Human Movement Sciences, United Metropolitan Colleges, São Paulo, BRAZIL; Department of Physiology, Federal University of São Paulo, São Paulo, BRAZIL.
  • British Psychological Society (BPS). “Soccer referees cope by thinking they are better than other refs’.”, 9 April 2013.
  • Harvard University. “Officiating Bias, Influenced By Crowds, Affects Home Field Advantage.”, 4 April 2007.
  • Erasmus University Rotterdam. “Taller football (soccer) players more likely to be accused of fouls, research indicates.”, 27 January 2010.
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