Howard Webb is a FIFA listed referee since 2005, and reached the top of the rock in 2010 when he officiated the Final of the Champions League and the Final Game of the World Championship. He is the first person to do this in the history of football.
He was kind enough to share some of his insights on being a top referee in one of the most popular sports in the world.
Please tell us about your background. When and why did you start officiating? How was the road to top?
On realizing I wouldn’t be a professional footballer, my dad, who was a semi-professional referee himself, asked if I had considered becoming a referee. At first I was reluctant but I do remember thinking that it would be good to have some younger people involved in refereeing so a friend and I, at the age of 18, decided to qualify as referees. I very soon felt that I could make some progress as a referee but I didn’t realistically think that I could reach the heights I have.
How should we imagine the life as a top FIFA official?
Life as an elite international football referee is good. I am lucky enough to be involved in some wonderful matches in some fantastic places all over the world, doing something that I love.
What do you do to keep the balance between your personal and professional life?
One of the hardest things we have to do is to keep that balance. What we do as referees, operating at the highest level, requires lots of dedication and sacrifice, but we have to remember that without the support of family and friends we wouldn’t be able to achieve our ambitions, so it’s important that time is set aside to spend time with the people who support us.
What was your most memorable game? Please tell us about it.
I have been lucky enough to be involved in many high profile and exciting matches, but the summer of 2010 was particularly special for me, as I refereed the Champions’ League and World Cup finals within 50 days of each other. Both were very memorable for different reasons. Coping with the pressure of these occasions is one of the challenges referees face; we need lots of self-belief and the support of an excellent team.
What do you do to be mentally fit?
I have regular access to a sports psychologist. We have group discussions where we share best practice in areas such as body language but also one to one sessions where more personal issues can be discussed. Effective refereeing is very much based on confidence levels and from time to time these can fluctuate, so having somebody to talk to, to give perspective, is important.
I also use visualisation techniques and draw confidence from previous experiences but also from the knowledge that I am well prepared, both physically and mentally (knowledge of the laws of football, competition rules, procedures etc).The quality of the people around me, in my team, gives me confidence too.
How do you keep focus during the game?
I can’t afford to lose focus during a match. At the level I operate something can happen in the blink of an eye which can change the course of the game, and we are at our most vulnerable when the game is calm and we mentally switch off. We use our communications system to speak within the team of officials to keep ourselves alert, and we use certain ‘trigger’ words or phrases to keep the whole team focussed
What is the key to conflict management?
Staying calm, having a thorough knowledge of the laws of the game, and being confident in the action you take. Confidence can be shown in verbal ways, but mainly through non-verbal communications, in order to take control. It’s also important to respond in a way which is proportionate to what has happened, and to show an even-handed approach when this is possible, as conflict often occurs when there is a sense of injustice or unfairness, even if this is only a perception as is often the case. Firm but fair would be a good strap line.
How do you handle failures?
Making mistakes from time to time is an inevitable part of what we do, even though we try to avoid errors. In fact, the only way to never make another mistake is to never do anything again. Knowing that mistakes do happen makes it easier to deal with them, but the key thing is that you learn from the mistake in an effort to improve, thereby minimising future errors. Also, failures need to be put into perspective.
English referees traditionally have a liberal approach to call contacts. What do you think about accommodation when you referee on the international pitch? Do you adjust your style, or should the teams prepare and adapt to your tone when you officiate?
To be successful, referees around the World need to know what is required of them in the game they are about to take charge of, and sometimes this means having to make adjustments to their approach. Football has a slightly different culture in different places and referees need to be aware of this, understanding how their body language and approach will be received in their efforts to manage the players. But of course there is only one set of Laws of the Game and these must be applied globally. The game is about the players; the referee is there to contribute positively in protecting the players and protecting the image of the game, however the players play.
What is the biggest challenge for you at the moment?
Maintaining standards over a long period of time can be a challenge. Reaching the top in anything is tough, but staying there is even harder.
What is your goal right now?
My goal now is to work hard for successful performances in the remainder of the English Premier League season and in the knockout phase of UEFA competitions, before going into the World Cup in Brazil in really good shape, both physically and mentally.
What do you consider the most important characteristic of a top referee?
Self-belief, confidence and humility.
Thank you, Mr. Webb. I think it’s worth to note the goals you set yourself. They are ones you can absolutely control, may the force be with you when reaching them!