Rugby Refereeing and Business


It's an Acme Thunderer. The official whistle for Rugby.

It's an Acme Thunderer. The official whistle for Rugby.

To paraphrase Ferris Bueller – “Life moves pretty fast on the rugby pitch”. No other sport has the equivalent number of players on the field with so few officials. In Rugby there is one official, always addressed as Sir or Ma’am, and 30 players playing for 2 40-minute halves.

I recently took a rugby referee certification class which consisted of the following 3 parts:  4 hours of classroom work, 2-3 hours of practical work and another hour completing an open book test. Having passed the open book test, which was harder than it sounds, I am now a USA Rugby certified referee and can get paid to referee games complete with my brand new Acme Thunderer whistle. You are jealous aren’t you?

The classroom work was interesting and I learned a few things, and the test was a challenge even with the rule book open right next to me. But it was the practical that was by far the most humbling part of the course. Despite playing and coaching rugby for over 20 years, I was humbled by how fast the game moves. You have to remember to blow the whistle differently for different infractions – followed by the proper hand signal (of which there are 46) and then announce the infraction and get ready to restart the game. This all happens in fractions of seconds. The only way to do all of this at  game speed is to develop mental muscle memory. And the only way to develop those mental muscle memories is practice.

These are just some of the 46 hand signals a Rugby referee is required to know.

These are just some of the 46 hand signals a Rugby referee is required to know.

No matter well you know the rules of the game – there is no substitute for standing on the pitch with the whistle in your hand.  New referees are always encouraged to spend 20-30 minutes in front of a mirror “refereeing” a simulated game. Complete with hand signals and whistles. Once you get comfortable with the signals the next way a ref practices is to go to a rugby pitch and spend 80 minutes running all over the field refereeing an imaginary game. This does two things – it helps maintain the high level of fitness a referee is required to maintain and it also reinforces the muscle memory – both physical and mental – required to properly referee a match under live conditions. It also teaches you to get used to looking like an idiot – which fans, coaches and players will cheerfully call you.

As a ref knowledge of the game isn’t enough – you have to actively help prevent infractions of the rules, not just react to them. This goal of managing a game and being proactive is fairly unique in the world of sporting officials. This occurs even at the highest levels of the game and you routinely hear comments like this from the Ref even at World Cup matches:  “Black #13 get your hands out of the ruck”, “Red number #6 crawl away”, “Blue #2 behind the last foot”. All of these comments by the Refs are made in an effort to maintain Game Flow.

The concept of Game Flow is one of the imperatives of Rugby. At its core Rugby should be a game of action not a game with frequent whistles and stoppages. Unlike most other sports, referees have some latititude about what calls they can make and how often they have to blow the whistle – all in an effort to increase Game Flow. There is a particular concept called advantage which means when team A breaks a rule  the referee can allow play to continue under an “advantage” for Team B. This might last for 5 seconds or 30 seconds depending on the type of infraction and what is happening on the field. This concept is full of nuance and its main goal to maintain game flow.

 Needless to say much discussion ensues amongst the rugby cognoscenti about whether an advantage was gained or whether too much time is given. This degree of subjectivity in officiating a game can be very frustrating for people new to Rugby, especially for Americans who are used to instant replays and overturned calls. And until recently all the decisions have been made by the 1 referee on the pitch but now they’ve added 2 assistant referees, but they are mostly confined to the sidelines and they defer to the head referee.

Carrying the whistle as a USA rugby referee has improved me as a player and a coach.

Carrying the whistle as a USA rugby referee has improved my rugby playing both as a player and as a coach.

Rugby unlike other sports has no set stoppages or breaks other than a 10-minute half-time. There are no TV timeouts or any timeouts for that matter. Sure there are times play has to be reset because the ball has left the field of play or someone scores, but the clock generally doesn’t stop except in the case of a prolonged injury stoppages. Since the clock is always running, and only the ref knows exactly how much time is left in the match, there is a constant urgency that sports like Basketball or Football just don’t have because of the rest and breaks that clock stoppages build into a game. This is especially true during the last 2-3 minutes of an NBA or college basketball game. Soccer is the only other well known sport in the US that has this fungible concept of time remaining in a match.

You may ask what Rugby refereeing has to do with Technology and Business? Fair question. Not much. At least directly. However there are quite a few indirect intangible benefits that being a Rugby referee reinforces. 

  • You have to remain calm under the pressure of players, coaches, and fans yelling contradictory things at you, and usually they aren’t very nice things. Remaining calm while customers are expressing their displeasure is even more important. 
  • You have to be decisive – there can be no waffling on the rugby pitch. One side has to get the ball. Either there was or wasn’t penalty, either way make the call, hopefully the right one, and move on. The same is true in business – you have to make a decision and move on. Indecisiveness leaves you dead in the water and your competition will pass you by.
  • You will make mistakes. Plenty of them.  But you can’t let those mistakes get in the way of making the right call the next time.  Both in rugby and in business you can’t let your past actions cloud your future decisions.
  • Focus is required both in business and on the rugby pitch. You have to be in moment in order to be effective. This is just as true on the Rugby pitch as it is on a conference call or in a sales meeting.
  • Preparation matters – in rugby its fitness, match planning, and knowing the history of each team as you prepare for the match. In business preparation is knowing your competition; understanding your customer’s needs and requirements; knowing how your solution will meet and exceed those requirements; and being prepared to handle the inevitable objections that will come your way.
  • Performance evaluation is critical – after a match you need to debrief with your assistant referees and the coaches to get their feedback on how you did. You should have senior referees occasionally attend your matches to provide feedback and constructive critism so you can improve your performance. This is just as true in business – you should debrief with team members after meetings with clients to find out what went well and what you should improve. You should seek feedback on your performance from more senior people so that you can improve, you should also provide this actionable feedback to teams that you manage.

Are you a rugby referee? How about a football ref, soccer ref or baseball umpire? Would you agree with this list? What sport do you think develops and reinforces the skills most useful for business?  -t

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  1. #1 by Conway Bown on 2012/10/06 - 05:11

    Very interesting article and a very interesting viewpoint on reffing a game that is not native to the US. I very much liked the way you used it as an analogy for business. Well done! CB

    • #2 by Thom on 2012/10/06 - 08:38

      Conway, thanks for your kind comment which I’ll take as high praise given your location and proximity to the high level rugby that the Wallabies play down there in the Southern Hemisphere. -Thom

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