Contrary to Popular Belief, Refs Are People Too! Personality and Perceptions of Officials

Article excerpt

Officials are crucial for the smooth functioning of sport at all levels of competition. According to Glegg and Thompson (1993), the official is the essential third dimension of an athletic contest, with the players and coaches constituting the first and second respectively. However, an uneasy relationship tends to exist between game participants and officials as historically they have viewed each other as a source of constant aggravation (Dickson, 2002). Anecdotally, there are recorded cases of players and coaches physically assaulting officials, throwing equipment at officials, yelling abuse, and screaming profanities. Reasons for such behaviour and disrespect are unclear, yet research on officials over the last two decades has been sparse.

Despite their essential role, recent reports have found that officials are dropping out at an alarming rate. Van Yperen (1998) estimated the turnover rate among Dutch volleyball referees to be approximately 20%, while Forbes and Betts (2003) reported that the Canadian Hockey Association loses approximately 30% of its 33,000 registered officials annually and, in turn, must spend about $500,000 yearly in training new officials. The majority of research on officials has therefore focused on issues related to stress and burnout.

In one of the first studies in this area, Taylor, Daniel, Leith, and Burke (1990) investigated perceived stress, psychological burnout, and paths to turnover intentions among 1,269 registered soccer officials. Participants completed a self-report survey related to stress and burnout at both the beginning and end of the soccer season. Results showed that younger respondents tended to report more burnout, suggesting that older referees had developed better coping resources, such as more confidence and assertiveness. The study also found that evaluative aspects of officiating (such as fear of failure) related most strongly to feelings of burnout. In addition, the mismatch between expected and perceived appreciation and recognition also appeared to contribute to burnout. The researchers suggested that players, coaches and spectators are perhaps more likely to evaluate referees negatively rather than positively and that perceptions of negative evaluation may contribute to burnout and turnover intentions.

In a similar study, Goldsmith and Williams (1992) investigated perceived stressors for football and volleyball officials. They found that 'fear of failure' led to the most perceived stress, and that 'verbal abuse' was also a high contributor to stress. However, football officials also perceived greater stress than volleyball officials for the 'fear of physical harm' factor. This would lead one to suggest that violence toward officials is perceived as more likely to occur in full-contact sports.

A number of other studies have investigated stress and burnout among officials across a variety of sports such as baseball and softball (Rainy, 1995), American and Australian basketball (Anshel & Weinberg, 1995; Rainey & Winterich, 1995) and rugby (Rainey & Hardy, 1997; Rainey & Hardy, 1999). Consistent with previous research, there are four stress factors (fear of failure or performance concerns, fear of physical harm, interpersonal conflict and time pressure) that have emerged consistently among studies of officials. Interestingly, while all of the studies have consistently reported these stress factors, officials generally rate the quantity or effect of them as being only mild to moderate. Thus, it appears that contrary to what the attrition rates might imply, officials do not at least report experiencing high levels of stress. However, since the majority of this research has sampled currently active officials, it is possible that these officials possess characteristics that differentiate them from their counterparts who dropped out.

Research investigating the personality characteristics of officials dates back almost three decades. …