December 19, 2015

Psychology for Referees - Performance Management (2/4): Feedback

Your free-kick decision, the players' and fans' reactions, your belief in or, at times, even your doubts in the correctness of your decision and the debriefing with your referee observer have one thing in common: Following a certain kind of input given, you get some information back as a response. Or, in one more omnipresent and familiar term: You get Feedback.

Becoming better by improving your weaknesses and cementing your strengths depends on feedback more than on anything else. This counts for practically every human - regardless whether we are talking about pupils, employers, athletes and therefore also referees. But is every kind of feedback automatically leading to a performance improvement, increased motivation and higher efforts? And what are prerequisites of successful feedback?

Feedback is highly relevant in refereeing, from the bottom up to the very top. Of course on a top level, there are more monetary resources to facilitate programs like fitness monitoring (which is also kind of feedback), mentoring systems (I remind you on some current Elite referees who were formerly mentored by former top referees and got continuous feedback after their matches) or video portals such as UEFA's Referee Network in which the officials are regularly informed about the correct solution for match situations that cropped up at the latest matchdays of CL and EL.

I attempt to introduce you to a relatively young theory that belongs to the scientifically and empirically most proven assumptions in psychology and has tremendous impacts on the feedback culture in business - but also sports psychology. After part 1 about goal-setting, this text therefore focuses on how to monitor the goal attainment by getting feedback.

Part 2 of the Performance Management Series: How to give effect feedback?

2. Feedback

3. Performance Evaluation

4. Incentive Systems

But before turning too scientifically, some basic things about feedback should be said.

Is feedback = feedback?

No. Usually one differs between informative and evaluative feedback. They can be explained as follows:

Informative feedback: feedback "that acts as a directive to keep goal-setting on course" (Kim & Hamner, 1976) or, in other words, feedback which consists of advices how a goal can be attained (e.g. by behaving in a certain way or using a certain method).

Evaluative feedback: feedback which provides the recipient with information about how good he or she has been so far. This includes an assessment of the goal-attainment (is it already fulfilled?) and of the quality of work (in refereeing this might be: how did I perform? The observer will tell me so).

Specially evaluative feedback has the power to motivate its recipient (of course this varies with the valence of the feedback, the worst feedback on earth is not mandatorily motivating..). An even more positive effect on motivation and performance can be reached by combining informative and evaluative feedback (Kim & Hamner, 1976).

Furthermore, feedback should not be given too late. Receiving an assessment of your performance 3 weeks after the match concerned does not make much sense. It does not have to come immediately, but should be done soon. And it should be done continuously - not four times a week or so, but at least on a sensible, regular basis.

Observers, learn: Provide your referees with a proper assessment how he or she has done. But don't leave him alone with that. Show him positive points and focus on what he should improve and, in particular, how this is possible. 

How exactly should feedback be given?

This depends on the kind of referee you are observing as a referee observer. Generally there are people who are glad about clear words and open for it. Others are maybe more sensitive to negative feedback so that you have to be a bit more careful. I will come back on that later.

A widely spread, but not necessarily correct method is the so-called "sandwich-method" which simply means that negative feedback is sandwiched by a positive start and a positive point as a conclusion. This is rather a best-practice and no validated theory.

As indicated above, a relatively new theory is dominating research in the feedback area until now: Kluger's and DeNisi's so-called Feedback Intervention Theory ("FI theory", 1996). The theory's goal basically is to explain conditions under which feedback is perceived or grasped positively and under which conditions the opposite is the case, i.e. when feedback might have negative impacts on future performance, motivation and satisfaction. They showed that one third of all feedback processes investigated indeed had negative effects.

Because I do not want to bore you with too many details, these are the basic findings or premises:

1. Feedback does not always increase performance quality. Under some circumstances it can have negative effects. It depends on how the feedback-giver presents it.
2. Feedback often touches human needs, e.g. to have a positive self-image and self-concept. If you are criticized, your self-image might be threatened - you want to defend it and thus do not process the feedback information well enough.
3. Whether feedback is perceived as positive and motivating or as the direct opposite, depends on the focus of the feedback.

There are three foci: 1. the so-called meta-task-level (e.g. the self), 2. the task-motivational level (focussing on results) and 3. task-learning level (focussing on behaviour). In the following, we use the terms self-image, results and behaviour for the purpose of simplification.

The following graphics illustrate the impacts of focussing on one or the other level in general and when giving a referee positive and negative feedback.

FI theory: general (click to enlarge for better quality)

FI theory: positive feedback

FI theory, negative feedback

As you can see, feedback is grasped as most motivating and positive if the feedback itself is positive (no miracle). However, in easy tasks, completely positive feedback loses its motivational character as the recipient knows that the task he faced was not challenging at all (imagine the easiest match you ever handled in your life. The observer, if you have one, comes in the dressing room and laudes you: "Everything perfect, brilliant performance!" Does that motivate you that much? Probably not). In case of positive feedback, don't refrain from using adjectives - focus on the self-image! Praise the referee, it boosts his/her self-confidence.

Although e.g. UEFA's observers are always reminded to see referees in a positive light, they only become better, expand their skills and work on their weaknesses if they are aware of them! Their deficits have to be addressed clearly. Therefore it is your duty as a referee observer to provide the referee with sufficient input. Points for improvement must be integrated into most observer reports. A report or debriefing without any room for improvement or consideration cannot be good.

However, the FI theory clearly tells you that this should be done carefully:

1. Focus on behaviour!
2. You can also concentrate on results.
3. Never focus on the recipient's self-image! Never use (negative) adjectives! Your feedback won't be accepted under such circumstances as the recipient's self-image might be threatened and therefore defended!

Concentrating on results is ok, but won't help the referee that much either. If you tell him "Your performances are, compared to the others, a bit worse on average." or "The players did not respect you.", you are describing symptoms which the referee probably knows himself best. What he or she maybe does not know is how to avoid similar bad results in future. And for that, you have to focus on behaviour (and never on his self-image, character etc.).

How can this be done concretely? This guideline is directed at referee observers:

A. Create a positive atmosphere for discussion with the referee (team) [video example]
- Choose a good point of time (when all parties have a cool head, don't do it 30 min after the game).
- Communicate respectfully and in an esteeming way.
- Ask the referee (team) for his/her/their impressions and perspective.
- Present your impressions and perspective and explain it clearly.
- Start your analysis with a positive point, this will create more acceptance of what comes next.
- Underline the benefit from following your advice.

B. Highlight behaviour, consequences from this behaviour and alternatives (see below!).
- Refer to particular situations where a certain behaviour was visible.
- Point out the consequences arising from this behaviour.
- Never use adjectives, stick to concrete situations and behaviour.
- Show alternative behaviour or even compare negative with positive behaviour.
- Offer the recipient better solutions and ways to realize them.

C. Boost the recipient's self-confidence
- Utter your confidence that the recipient can obtain better results and realize alternatives in future.
- Attribute successful behaviour to the referee's abilities and effort, attribute failures to his efforts only and never to his abilities!
- Conclude your debriefing, discussion or report with expressed faith in the referee.

A way how step B can succeed is the S-B-I-A-method illustrated in the following.

The most important point is: Contrast observable behaviour with alternative behaviour. It is best to show the referee team two match situations: The first one should illustrate the negative example (wrong decision, unsuccessful player management, weak body language...), the second one - ideally taken from the same match - should show another situation where a comparable occasion was solved better by the referee. An example of that can be found here.

You might think that all this is self-evident and done in praxis. It is not.

Specially at FIFA tournaments, there are referee assessors or observers which do not conduct any detailed debriefing with the referees. Some confederations do not conduct any form of debriefing at all. UEFA debriefings sometimes do not take much longer than 15 minutes (duration is not = quality though). And as an ameteur referee, you can be lucky and happy if you have an observer at all. Successful feedback does not only depend on the feedback-giver though, but also on its recipient.

There are two things good referees should possess: The ability to take criticism and, closely linked with it, the ability to be open for honest self-criticism. Such soft skills are fundamentally important - not only in refereeing. A lack of these abilities, e.g. due to certain personality patterns or traits, can impede a referee's career progress. It is something observers and managers do not like at all. You can even disagree with the referee observer about precise situations or general observations - but never contradict him or her (an exception might be black-or-white cases where the observer is clearly and unequivocally wrong with you and your teammates being sure about it).

What you should do in most situations is nodding, being grateful for the criticism and, if you disagree for yourself, asking for concrete examples where the point of improvement became evident and how you can improve in future. There is mostly something to criticize - or, formulated more positively, there is always food for thought which the official should be able to get to know. It is however his or her decision to either accept or not accept the negative, constructive feedback.

If feedback is given properly and following the advices outlined above, there is a good chance that the referee will find it worth to do more than just taking note of it though.


1) Feedback should be given continuously and soon. 
2) If feedback is given properly, it can have positive effects on performance and motivation.
3) Feedback should be directed at observable behaviour. In case of negative feedback, never focus on the recipient's self-image - the opposite counts for positive feedback.
4) Break the ice by creating a positive atmosphere.
5) Contrast negative with positive behaviour.
6) For those who receive feedback: See it as a chance to develop and not as a personal attack. You don't have to accept every feedback, though - but you should at least be grateful for it.


Kim, J.S. & Hamner, W.C. (1976). Effect of performance feedback and goal setting on productivity and satisfaction in an organizational setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61(1), 48-57

Kluger, A.N. & DeNisi, A. (1996). The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-Analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254-284


  1. Very interesting Niclas, a great piece!
    Is there going to be a The Third Team referee of the year award for 2015?

  2. Excellent work !

    I ll pass it to professionals .



Copyright © . The 3rd Team
Theme Template by BTDesigner · Powered by Blogger