The Ultimate Guide for Mental Preparation

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

I think it’s evident for most referees that mental preparation is key to succeed on the court. So, I gave it a quick brainstorm and put together some tips I find useful when it comes to prepare mentally for any game.

Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the GAME. You have great responsibility when you put on your whistle. Players and coaches work really hard to reach their goals, and your satisfaction comes from being able to manage the game in the correct way to serves the participants, and (most of) the fans’ entertainment.

No matter which level you are, preparation is essential for every game.

I start from the general big picture, and go in a chronological order.

1. Knowledge of the environment

There are general stuff the exceptional referee considers facing a game. You should take care of various aspects of the game like…

  1. Knowledge of the rules is fundamental. Without it, you see some serious trouble in concentration, and you have no chance making decisions in a heartbeat, as you are supposed to make them. Period.
  2. Know the teams. Getting information of the coaches and key players fine tunes your calls. You can’t always be in the perfect place, in flawless focus, and unexpected things happen from time to time. You must expect the unexpected, and the best thing you can do is to gain a solid knowledge on the attitude of players and coaches. It is essential to know who the key players are, and how they play the game. How coaches tend to behave, and what strategies the teams apply to win. However, you need to be unbiased on the court, and judge only the situation.
  3. Know your game. Believe me, the game is in constant change. I have already written a post on pacing and leading. You set the tone, ans players do follow you, but sometimes they take the lead. My advice is to gain a solid knowledge on your game and the environment, and adapt your style. Even to the small changes in the game. You must be able to follow in order to take the lead.

Watch situations and analyze games constantly to be a better judge on the court.

2. The day before the game

Although I always emphasize that you must be in the present to be happy, you may need to take into consideration some rules to follow before the job is actually done.

  1. Get enough and quality sleep. I heard that Roger Federer sleeps 11 hours a day. I envy him for this habit. I cannot do this, and probably you cannot either, but you can try your best, and that’s enough. Sleep well on the day before.
  2. An easy workout helps you on this, and prepares your body.
  3. Stay sober at least from the day before the game. Drinking alcohol reduces your concentration, no matter when your game starts on the next day. Avoid drinking even a sip of alcohol at least from the day before the game!
  4. The most important is to believe that you are good enough! This is essential. You may think you are confident, which I consider myself, but truly believing that you are already good enough is a different story. And as you climb the ladder, you may face this problem time and again. I do, for sure. I have an exercise here that can build a profound belief as deep as in your guts that you can do an excellent job.

3. Game day

  1. Eat consciously. Your body and mind are connected. Without feeding your stomach properly, you may face difficulties in concentration.
  2. If you are tired, take a power nap. It means switching of your phone, television, music and go to a dark room for a 20 minutes sleep. You don’t necessarily need to actually fall asleep, and make sure to set you alarm clock to 20 minutes to wake up. If you sleep more, you may feel more tired when you wake up. Feel free to experiment with 15, 25, 30 minutes and use which is the best for you.
  3. Set off on time, or even a bit earlier. It doesn’t mean you will never be delayed, but you do everything to avoid the frustration of being late, and this is also very important.
  4. Don’t watch games. this is only my opinion (the same goes for all my posts, but I wanted to emphasize it at this point), and I’m interested in yours, of course, because it may be a provocative statement. I’ve found that if I watch a game on the day of my assignment, my performance sinks. Maybe it’s because you see patterns that may be wrong and your unconscious follows these patterns. So, my advice here is to watch only games that were officiated well, or just mentally rehearse some situations… called right. You can watch some situations and be sure you envision calling them right. It is important to make positive imprints in your nervous system.
  5. The most important: the game hasn’t started yet! It means, there is no game, so just do whatever makes you happy (without hurting yourself, of course), and enjoy life! Do small favors, and make other people happy. It makes you fulfilled, and people will see, hear and feel it on the court. Don’t care about the game. Be in the present, accept everything as they are, forgive every injury caused on your soul, love who you want to love, and enjoy life! In two words: be happy!

4. Right before the game

  1. Empty your mind. There are some easy things you can do. Shout, slap yourself in the face, listen to your favorite song, … or meditate. Meditation is the single most effective way to clear your thoughts. I wrote a post about it. You can do it everywhere, anyhow, the most important is to DO IT. Build a habit on it. It may seem difficult at first, but it’s worth the effort.
  2. Do a good pre-game conference. The topics may vary in different sports, but some key steps will help you as a team. Respect each other and keep eye contact during the game. I have no doubt that you realize that if the officials are in sync, it makes them stronger. Players, coaches, supporters will see it, hear it, feel it. Deep rapport is essential, and the easiest way to achieve it is through looking each other in the eyes and smile. A good pre-game is not only helpful for officials that have never met before. It gives an opportunity to mentally warm up and fine tune your approach to a game.
  3. Do some quick mental exercises. The more you practice, the easier they will become. You can shoot your anchor of confidence and model the best referee you really admire. This paid off very well for me many times.
  4. Get into the flow. The state of motivated concentration helps you make the right calls in the right time. Here is how to do it.
  5. Use superstitions wisely. I believe in superstitions and there is a scientific explanation on that. They are mental anchors that put you in the right state. The problem is that when you miss them, you will get distracted and your game is ruined at that holy moment. So, be careful to use acts that you can always perform. I have only one. I put my whistle on when I enter the court.

5. During the game

Your preparation doesn’t end with the start of the game. You will feel that you cannot maintain 100% concentration during the whole game, that’s not our goal. It is to realize that you are out and get back in the zone ASAP.

There a couple of ways that help you do this.

  1. Smile. That helps you relax.
  2. Move. It helps you keep up your concentration as well as being in the right place to make a call. When you find yourself standing still, and lose concentration, move!
  3. Focus only on the court. There is no television, no supporters, no relatives, no crazy fans… nothing, except the GAME. So put your focus only to the game. When you realize that you get distracted, deal with it, as soon as you can. My principle is that you can do three things to distractions coming from outside. Love them, change them or leave them. Since you can leave them only by stopping to referee, this is not an option. So, you can either change distractions (sending out supporters, warning the coach, etc.), or if you can’t, try and do love them! Remember: there are a lot of referees who would gladly take your place at the moment. But if you find yourself distracted by anything you can change, do change it as early as possible. The key is self consciousness here. You need to learn to watch yourself, and be able to recognize different emotional states. Meditation also helps here.
  4. Realize when you make a mistake, and come back to the game as soon as possible. Here is how.
  5. The most important is to be in the present! Forget everything you’ve done, you haven’t done and what you will have to do. Concentrate on the present moment. Always. You can do it by self talk, telling yourself what’s happening on the court. But be careful, use only positive phrases and don’t ever comment on the game, because it will affect your calls. Use phrases like “right on”, “you’re good”, “calm down”, “be alert”, “smile”, “concentrate”, “focus”…

6. After the game

As soon as you blow the final whistle, you begin to prepare for your next game. Here’s what helps you do a better job next time.

  • Seek for feedback. Actively giving and looking for feedback is invaluable to you. Remember, there are no mistakes, only results. And you have to find out what to do to make the results better. To do it, you should seek for both positive and negative feedback, to strengthen what is good and correct what is not so good so far. But be careful. Accept every feedback, say thanks politely, and take only unbiased feedback with good intentions. Don’t let them ruin your self esteem. You are already good enough!
  • Admit that you made mistakes. Those who didn’t make mistakes are the ones without a referee uniform. We are humans. It may even help you get over your mistakes if you talk about them openly and freely. I have met only mediocre referees who think they are perfect. Be exceptional and accept your mistakes. This is the first step to correct them.
  • Learn the lessons. Write them down in a blog, in a comment on this blog, discuss with a friend, or send an email to me. I’d be grateful for your insights and glad to help if I can.

I consider these hints useful for myself, but please, don’t believe every word I write. Try them instead, take what works for you, and ignore the rest.

Small favors make us happy. And mainly not the favors we get, but the ones we give. So, if you liked it, feel free to share this post.

That’s not all, folks!

This post may be too general and I’m sure you have some specific, practical tips and tricks you can share. What works for you when it comes to mental preparation? I’m so eager to see your points in the comments. Anything goes! How do YOU prepare mentally for your games?

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” – Alexander Graham Bell

About Peter

Peter Papp is an enthusiastic supporter of open-minded referees, international basketball referee (FIBA) and NLP Master Practitioner. Peter is the founder of

  • Thank you for the post!! Very good plan

    Sebastin Altfeld

    • Peter

      Thanks Sebastian 🙂

  • NIcholas Wade

    Peter I like your writing and a lot of it has proved useful to me in my work as a pro gambler trading sports in-play. I have to be pretty sharp to survive and your stuff on the mental side of your work has proved especially useful
    I watch about 40 hours of pro sport a week and have refereed field hockey and rugby at junior level so have a little insight into your world as a referee (only a little to be sure) but something you wrote above surprised me :

    “Getting information of the coaches and key players fine tunes your calls”.

    I`d have thought that this is a recipe for making biased calls based on players previous performances – not what they actually do during the game in question.

    • Peter

      Great point, Nicholas, absolutely agree. It is really hard to find balance between biased calls and making the right calls when something unexpected happens. Unexpected situations are the easiest to miss. I only say that analyzing situations help you get prepared, and at the same time you need to actually wait for things to happen and make the call according to what you see on the court at that moment. I can feel the controversy in this point, so I will do my best making it clearer. Maybe here, or in another post. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your point!

  • Ben Wood

    This is a great tool-kit for referees of any level. I am an International Wheelchair Basketball referee and National Instructor, and there is LOTS I can take from this for my own practice and development. At the same time, the candidates I tutor will also be able to access these thoughts as they start on their refereeing journey.

    I really like the idea of not watching a game before my own – I think that is a really useful suggestion.

    What would you recommend for referees who work 2 consecutive games back to back, with little time to prepare mentally inbetween? (Possibly with game 2 being with a different official?) A rare situation, but possible nevertheless.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts – I will be directing many of our officials to your site in the future 🙂

    • Peter

      This is awesome to hear, thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it!

      Your question is also very good. I remember how often I refereed two or more games back to back. I think the best one can do in this case is to draw the conclusions from the precious game and take some time to relax. I refer to meditation a lot, and I consider in this case, it’s also extremely useful. A five minute meditation clears one’s mind and (s)he can get prepared for the next game with ease.

      With some practice, one can do it even with eyes open and in the 20 minutes pre-game session. Just watch your breath as long as you can. Nothing else, only your breath. How you breath in and breath out. Don’t control, only watch. Distracting thoughts are normal, and they will disappear over time…

      This is the best method I know to empty the mind and focus on the present moment.

      Hope it helps 🙂


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