What Refereeing Has Taught Me

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 01-26-22

Those who know my teaching and coaching also know that I love to draw examples from my long tenure as a soccer coach. First, the examples are very relatable even if you aren’t a fan of soccer. Second, I am a fan of soccer, having been involved at some level since I was 4 years old. Most of that time is as a player or coach, and some as an administrator/leader. Several years ago I hung up my spikes and quit playing. I didn’t play much, and only in pick-up or recreational adult leagues, but having had too many run-ins with players who took it way too seriously (including 2 trips to the hospital). This past June I retired from coaching.

So, I turned to refereeing. To be honest, I did not think I would enjoy it, but since I didn’t know, I thought I should give it my best effort and try it out. I intended to referee through the fall of 2021 and then evaluate whether or not I would stay with it. The number of games and changes in direction exposed just how bad my knees were, with only a thread of an ACL left and a lot of bone-on-bone. I had suspected as much, but this was even preventing me from doing stairs. I may not need a knee replacement quite yet, but my doctor has made clear that I’m done with running. 

And so, my experiment comes to a premature end. I thought I would share some of the lessons I took away from the experiment which are applicable on a broader business perspective. 

1. Purpose is important 

Any endeavor that you jump into must have a clear purpose behind it. That’s pretty common advice, but purpose is important for two primary reasons that aren’t really talked about that much. First, purpose allows you to endure the trials and tribulations, the pain and suffering, the tediousness and boredom, and all the other negative aspects that inevitably accompany any pursuit in which you intend to excel. In addition to the real pain, I spent lots of time driving in my car or sitting watching teams warm up waiting for the match to start. I had to read, study, take tests and fill out lots of paperwork. Ugh. But it was part of the job. Knowing WHY I was operating in that domain made all of those things a lot more tolerable because you had to go through them in order to deliver the intended value. 

The other key in purpose is it helps you make big decisions. There are many types of referees, from vocal to quiet, and from friendly to angry. Many, admittedly, are not very conscious of what kind of referee they want to be, but I tried to be. My life’s purpose is always to have a positive impact on people beyond my direct engagement with them. In other words, I want to make them better after I am no longer with them. This affects how I do my business coaching, how I engage as a board of directors member, and how I was as a soccer coach. It also helped me determine what kind of referee I wanted to be. I wanted players to enjoy the game, and to learn from it. So, I was a very vocal ref (perhaps even more vocal than I was a coach) providing everything from encouragement to explanation. I made sure players understood what was going on, and tried to help them play their best game while on the pitch. This wasn’t about tactics and technique, but mostly about not letting infractions (both those called, and those not-called) get in the way of their enjoyment and being the best they could be. It also meant that it was relatively easy to ignore the parents because all of their (quite frankly uneducated and certainly biased) yelling was irrelevant to my purpose until it truly did interfere. And even in those moments, it was easier and more purpose-driven to help encourage the players to ignore the parents rather than change parent behavior (on a major side note, parental behavior is killing the game). 

My purpose also helped me make a decision about whether or not I wanted to continue refereeing, above and beyond my doctor’s advice. In the end, I could only have a transactional and momentary impact on people as a referee. Of course, we need more referees, but very few players will remember what a referee said to them that changed their worldview. This was too big of a time sink that was inconsistent with my life’s purpose, and while I do love soccer, that lack of alignment would make it difficult to invest that kind of time into doing and doing well. 

2. My own personal mastery 

Since I was bothering to jump into refereeing, I might as well make an effort to be the best referee I can be during that duration, however long it might be. There would be many, mostly my wife, that would say that I put too much effort into the task. However, I couldn’t take people’s money for refereeing if I wasn’t going to be as qualified, capable, and prepared as possible. That’s what being a professional means. 

But furthermore, and more importantly, learning how to self-improve and practice personal mastery is its own capability that should always be cultivated and practiced. Learning how to learn is never out of style. Part of my experiment was indeed to deliberately practice personal mastery in the development of my craft of refereeing. While the topic of personal mastery itself is perhaps only worthy of a book, there were a couple experiment specific methods that are worth sharing. 

First, metrics help, even if they don’t provide the answers. I measured how many different clubs I refereed, how many goals were scored, how many coaches I needed to pause the match for and more. My job wasn’t to score goals, and the club I refereed for was determined by my assignors, so these weren’t things that I could affect. Perhaps the only truly semi-controlled metric was how many penalty kicks I awarded, although since I also kept track of conversions, it was helpful to prove that awarding a kick from the spot at that level is hardly automatic. However, keeping track of metrics provides a focusing mechanism, and keeping focused on progress is key to personal mastery. If you just go through on auto-pilot, hardly aware that you’re doing the task, you avoid activating your brain’s ability for self-improvement. If you track fuel mileage in your car, you may not learn from the data, but your brain will be more aware. If you keep metrics of how long your meetings run, you may not learn anything new, but your brain will be more aware of length. Metrics help us focus. 

Also, reflection is a powerful tool, and I would reflect after each match about how it went and what I could have, or should have, done differently. The key is to get your reflection as close to t = 0  as possible (time = zero, or the moment of the action you want to reflect on. Sometimes if I had back-to-back-to-back matches and barely had enough time between to check player passes, the reflection on the previous match would be gone. If I could reflect immediately after a match, I could focus in on key moments and extra lessons. Wherever you want to insert reflection, get it as close to t=0 as possible. 

3. Getting direct observation right 

I wrote about how to effectively observe both in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean and People Solve Problems. Refereeing really provides an opportunity to appreciate a few key lessons in observation. First, both bias and positioning are important factors in observation. Positioning is quite obvious in refereeing. Even as a coach, and as a fan, I’m very wary of criticizing a referee’s call or non-call when I’m 50 yards away and they are 5 yards away. It’s why I made efforts never to be too far away from the play (and my knees paid for it) because my angle, and positioning, would really matter. When a coach would complain about a call, I would always want to be able to say that I put myself in a very good position to clearly observe the situation. 

Of course, no matter how true that was, they would often disagree, and that brings us to bias. Bias has a tremendous effect as a filter on how we observe. During my stint as a referee, when I would watch a match as a spectator I would still try to put myself in the referee’s shoes and make calls before they did (rather than just second guess them). However, when I favored a team (such as Everton or Derby County – woe is me as a fan), it was much more difficult to be unbiased. So when watching these teams, I actually stopped trying to test myself, but I was only seeing my bias, not my own observation. I’ve never heard parents moan about a missed call for their own team. 

While both of those points may be obvious in refereeing, they are more difficult to apply in most business settings. Both are key points worth a longer post but consider your position/situation/angle of observation. Are you too far away from the situation? Are you seeing the whole picture? The other is to consider your bias. Do I already know what I want to see? Is there a way, perhaps with data, to remove bias from the observation? 

Finally, considering these lessons, we should question our own first reaction to someone’s observation/judgment/decision. How often as a player, coach, or fan does our poor position and strong bias cause a first reaction to a referee’s decision as negative? We might hang our heads or even yell something. But statistically speaking, even the worst referee gets most decisions correct. The more likely scenario is that your bad position and bias are at play. So start off assuming that your observation might be wrong. At least pause, be curious, and that is the lesson that carries beyond the soccer field. 

And so there ends my experiment, as well as my very long formal relationship with the sport of soccer. From here I will be nothing more than a spectator, but the sport had much to teach me and I am grateful for every role that I’ve played.