Evolution of Sports Officiating Research

The evolution of research on sports officiating, while lagging behind other sport-related research, emerged from a maelstrom created in the wake of the Cold War that resulted in the scientization of education in western nations (Forbes & Livingston, 2012). This emergence was earmarked by a “redefining” of the field by deemphasizing the pedagogical nature of physical education in favor of a greater focus on developing and sustaining academic disciplines that were more closely aligned with their parent disciplines (e.g., psychology, sociology, history, and their respective subdisciplines within the sport context). Research on sport and physical activity in the 1970s was dominated by a focus on the nature of the discipline, as well as the organizational structure of the fields (Corbin, 1993).

The 1980s reflected “a time of identity seeking” (Corbin, 1993, p. 84) wherein the scientization of the Cold War era continued through efforts to make a “better athlete”, thereby supporting sport-related research. This was clearly evident in the Canadian context as government financial support poured into the expansion of post-secondary physical education/ kinesiology programs populated by researchers focused on sports studies. This support came through the Canada Applied Sport Research Grants Program and provided enhanced credibility for emerging programs and specialities (Forbes & Livingston, 2012; Macintosh & Whitson, 1990). This expansion of the research agenda was accompanied by growth in graduate programs and the development of specialized subdisciplines.

The ongoing “scientization” of these programs was clearly evident in the form and focus on officiating scholarly works. Growth in sports-related research was also evident in the area of sports officiating; however, the scope and focus were predominantly psychological in nature. The early officiating studies focused on officials’ consistency (Alker, Straub, & Leary, 1973), personality (Fratzke, 1975), and psychological profiles (Kroll, 1977). Research starting in the 1980s and into the 2000s saw a diversification of sport official research spurred by increased inquiries into sources of stress experienced by officials in their role (Anshel & Weinberg, 1995, 1999; Goldsmith & Williams, 1992; Kaissidis-Rodnafinos, Anshel, & Porter, 1997; Kaissidis-Rodnafinos, Anshel, &Sideridis, 1998; Nesti & Sewell, 1999; Rainey, 1995; Rainey & Cherilla, 1993; Rainey & Hardy, 1997, 1999; Stewart & Ellery, 1996, 1998; Taylor, Daniel, Leith, & Burke, 1990). Most of the literature from this period surmised that stress and the difficulties in managing it (i.e., coping) were significant contributors to officiating dropout. While important to research progress, these early investigations into the officials’ role focused predominantly on their psychological traits and susceptibility to officiating pressures. However, stress-research on sport officials later summarized in these studies that official’s actually report only low to moderate stress levels (Rainey & Winterich, 1995).

Compared to research on other specialized sports-related topics, officiating scholarship still lagged behind. However, by the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, an increase in officiating research occurred wherein scholars clearly looked to work being done in other areas. Particularly, a predominant theme became understanding officials’ decision-making and related processes (e.g., decision bias) that impacted officiating performance (e.g., Auweele, Boen, De Geest, & Freys, 2004; Dennis, Carron, & Loughheed, 2002; Helsen & Bultynck, 2004; Jones, Pauli, & Eskine, 2002; Lane, Nevill, Ahmad, & Balmer, 2006; MacMahon & Ste-Marie, 2002; Mascarenhas, Collins, & Mortimer, 2002; Nevill, Balmer, & Williams, 2002; Philippe, Vallerand, Andrianarisoa, & Brunel, 2009; Proios & Doganis, 2003; Souchon, Coulomg-Cabagno, Traclet, & Rascle, 2004; Ste-Marie, 1999, Ste-Marie & Lee, 1991; Sutter & Kocher, 2004). A recognized lack of interconnectivity in officiating study has been pointed out (where personality, stress, and decision-making factors are more commonly studied, Hancock, Rix-Lièvre, & Côté, 2015).

Similarly, performance-related studies examining physiological aspects of officiating emerged around the same time. For example, Wilkins, Petersen, and Quinney (1991) used time-motion analysis, coupled with heart rate monitors, to assess physiological stress on hockey officials. Other studies also explored analogous physiological performance factors in game settings (e.g., Castagna, Abt, & D’Ottavio, 2007; Galanti et al., 2008; Kay & Gill, 2003, 2004; Krustup et al., 2009; Leicht, 2004; Martin, Smith, Tolfrey, & Jones, 2001; Weston, Castagna, Helsen, & Impellizzeri, 2009; Weston Castagna, Impellizzeri, Rampinini, & Breivik, 2010).

While psychological and physiological studies contributed the bulk of officiating-related research from the 1980s into the early 2000s, other less robust areas emerged. For example, a few studies pursued analysis of the relationship between injury and rules enforcement and quality of officiating (Andersen, Engebretsen, & Bahr, 2004; Collins, Fields, & Comstok, 2008; Livingston & Forbes, 2000, 2003; Parayre, 1989; Watson & Rickwood, 1999). There was also some early work in the area of entry and continuance of amateur sports officials; however, this topic would not be taken up again until the mid-2000s (Furst, 1991; Ross & Vaughn, 1995). What is evident in these early studies is an overwhelming emphasis on the individual official with little consideration of the context in which they carry out their roles. Additionally, most studies focused on single, specific sports (e.g., football/soccer) with little consideration of cross-sport similarities and were not multidisciplinary in nature.

A recent analysis of the history of studies on sport officials provides a picture of where interest has been and needs to be. Hancock, Miller, Roaten, Chapman, and Stanley (2019) comprehensively analyzed 386 officiating research studies that took place between 1970 and 2018. First, they found that women officials received relatively limited attention compared to male officials (12% versus 43%, respectively), while close to half of the studies (45%) included both male and female officials (based on studies that reported officials’ sex). Second, “interactor” type (or teambased, invasion game) officials (e.g., football, basketball, rugby) made up 82% of studies, with European football accounting for 57% of that total - and basketball next with 12%. Professional, international, and national sport officials were most involved, covering 77% of studies. More crucially, retention and official development topics only appeared in 10% of the studies, with even less attention directed to burnout, female officials, communication, and officiating groups (i.e., crews, teams), making up a modest 7% of studies. In sum, Hancock et al.’s (2019) useful findings demonstrate a need for further understanding about female officials’ experiences, community and novice officiating levels, sports other than team/invasion games (i.e., “interactor” officiating settings), and psychosocial factors gaining interest, including officials’ mental health (Goutte-barge, Johnson, Rochcongar, Rosier, & Kerkhoffs, 2017; Kilic, Johnson, Kerkhoffs, Rosier, Sc Gouttebarge, 2018), communication and interaction (Cunningham, Simmons, & Mascarenhas, 2018; Furley & Schweizer,

2016) , and officiating team processes (Boyer, MacMahon, Recope, & Rix-Lievre, 2020; Hancock, Martin, Paradis, & Evans, 2018).

Current research still explores physiological and psychological domains, such as self-efficacy (Myers et al., 2012), resilience (Livingston & Forbes, 2016), key attributes of elite officials (Morris Sc O’Connor,

2017) , and impact of physical workload and training practices (Leicht et al., 2019). However, new areas of research are emerging which reflect a change in perception related to the role officials play in sports. One new area centers on decision-making in officiating, and not only how decisions are made, but where officials are physically situated in relation to that action, as well as what they are looking at and what cognitive processes are going on (for review see Raab, Bar-Eli, Plessner, Sc Araujo, 2019). Another area considers how “home advantage” may also influence decisions made by officials (Dawson, Massey, Sc Downward, 2019). One additional and potentially litigious area of study is the relationship between officiating and sports-related injuries. We are also seeing a reemergence of sociocultural and economics studies. For example, several new works explore historical and philosophical examination of officiating. While not all areas are relevant to the context of this book, they do speak to growing recognition of officials as key members of the sporting context.

A new thrust in performance-based officiating research is how we can train decision-making to “improve” the quality of officiating (Gulec, Yil-maz, Isler, O’Connor, Sc Clarke, 2019; Schweizer, Plessner, Kahlert, & Brand, 2011). The use of technology (an “emerging issue” facing sport officials is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 9) has emerged in tandem with decision-making. Studies have explored how technology can influence how officials process their environment (e.g., 360 degree VR; Kittel, Larkin, Elsworthy, & Spittle, 2019a). Researchers are also

Sociocultural History of Officiating 15 looking at how technology can be used to evaluate officiating performance (i.e., decision-making skills assessment tools; Kittel, Larkin, Elsworthy, & Spittle, 2019b).

While the research foci noted above tend to follow traditional research approaches (e.g., centered predominantly on the individual), other emergent research recognizes an important environmental constraint on sport officials with more administrative focus - perceived organizational support (POS). As discussed elsewhere, POS relates to the role organizations can play with respect to supporting officials on their developmental pathways (Livingston et al., 2017). Of related relevance is the officials’ perception of this support (Livingston & Forbes, 2016). New areas include gender issues in officiating (Kim & Hong, 2016; Reid & Dallaire, 2019; Schaeperkoetter, 2017) and positive factors associated with officiating retention (Mack, Schulenkorf, Adair, & Bennie, 2018). Additionally, researchers have expanded their focus by moving beyond the elite sports to explore officiating in the context of youth sports (Ridinger, 2015). Others are examining ways to understand retention factors better (see Illardi, 2018; Jordan, Upright, & Forsythe, 2019; Ridinger et al, 2017). The recent explosion of officiating-related research, along with the change in focus, bodes well for being able to understand and support officials. This work also serves notice that sports officials are now starting to move away from outsider status.


  • • Officiating roles have evolved alongside sports’ own structural changes and cultural history.
  • • An official’s place in sport needs to be neutral and impartial. However, this does not mean they are not part of the larger landscape of sport.
  • • The prevailing culture of sport has systemically marginalized officials (us versus them).
  • • Obfuscating, and vilification of, the necessary role officials occupy ultimately can compromise athletic performance.
  • • Early research focused on the individual official, stripping away any organizational context that may impact their performance and persistence. Administrators can reverse this trend by including and supporting officials.
  • • Retention and development, female official experiences, non-team-based sports, and psychosocial factors, such as mental health, communication, and officiating crews/teams, are understudied. Increased attention on these issues will be a task for academics and practitioners alike in the future.
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