David Gough is widely recognised as one of the most respected Gaelic Football referees having refereed the top four competitions in the GAA Calendar; All Ireland Finals at minor, U21, club and senior intercounty. Below he shares his insights into the demands and challenges of refereeing and advises on the best way to approach both your relationship with the rules of the game and the referee. This is a principled based piece and so the thinking and messages hold true across many sports.


It can be said that a game is not a game without a set of rules. These rules must be implemented and enforced by someone. In competitive sport we can have no games without referees. This is one of sport’s insurmountable truths. The role of the referee is to control the game in accordance with the playing rules. Your relationship with the rules of the game you play and your interactions with the referee may be something you have given little or no thought to. My goal with this short piece is to give you an appreciation of the value of knowing the rules and communicating appropriately with the referee.

Refereeing is something that comes quite naturally to me. I have a huge interest in the rules and the language of the rules. I spend a lot of time reading the rules and reflecting on them to help me understand how to implement them. The language of the rules is very prescriptive. The rule book is difficult to read, difficult to understand and difficult to implement.

From a psychological perspective referees are told to never expect the perfect refereeing performance. We must accept that just like the players, we will make mistakes. However, we have the added burden that the consequence of a mistake on our behalf can have significant impact on how the game evolves thereafter. The only real comparable in a playing sense is a goal keeping error. Refereeing is a high stakes game.

At any serious level of sport, referees implement a set of rules which they have an in-depth knowledge of. Often those we deal with; players, management, fans and indeed pundits simply don’t have that same level of knowledge. Referees get their knowledge of the rules, from the rule book itself. Almost everyone else doesn’t; they get them second -hand from a person who most likely has attained them second-hand at best. Often I give talks to squads of players and on average 2 of a panel of 30 will have read the rule book. In order to referee at inter- county level I must get 94% in a 50 question, 30 minute exam. From my perspective the inequality between the referee and everyone else often lies in the lack of knowledge of the rule book. In short, most people don’t understand what we as referees are trying to implement. They become frustrated due to their lack of knowledge of the rules.

I use a three step process in communicating how I implement the rules; firstly I say what I have seen, secondly I link or apply it to a rule and thirdly I implement the rule. An error of judgment is to be expected, for example, I may feel it wasn’t a foul when the evidence suggest it was. There are reasons for this such as my viewpoint may be blocked or my attention may be else. To be human is to error. Errors of fact are different and should not happen. An error of fact is when the rules are implemented incorrectly such as awarding a penalty for a technical foul that does not occur inside the small rectangle. No matter the decision the old adage that a free will never be overturned is something you should learn to appreciate and accept. In rule it is not provided for; once a free is awarded it cannot be overturned.

All referees receive the same training and strive to implement the same set of rules. What makes us different is our personalities. We are all human and because of our life experiences we deal with various scenarios in different ways. We hear the word ‘respect’ frequently used and the reality is we all have different definitions and understandings of the word. What might be acceptable to some referees might be unacceptable to others and again this is something you should learn to appreciate. From my perspective what is totally unacceptable from a player towards any match official is; any form of physical or verbal abuse, any invasion of personal space or constant challenging of decisions and authority.

I am presuming that in reading this book you are striving to participate at a reasonable level in your sport. Therefore, I can assume you are striving to learn how to interact with the rules and communicate with the referee in a manner that is expected at the highest level of your sport by the best referees and officials. I would advise that firstly you should always assume good intent on behalf of the referee. It is too easy to convince yourself that the referee has a personal vendetta against you or your team and when you go down this road you are giving away control and abdicating responsibility. You will never know what mindset a referee will arrive in on any given day. This is something that is outside of your control. Another uncontrollable for you is the referee’s decision making. What is within your control however is your reaction. From a personal perspective how you communicate with me will dictate my response to you. Below are a few simple pointers for you.

  • Play inside the rules: this is very simple advice but in order to do this you must know them. Learn the rules and learn the skills required to play within them.
  • It is important to appreciate that it is not the job of the referee to allow the game ‘flow’. The game flows when players play within the rules.
  • Use the language of the rulebook when communicating with the referee. The referee will appreciate this and it is most likely you will receive a favourable response.
  • Tone of voice and body language are critical in all forms of communication in all walks of life not least player/ referee interactions.
  • Own your actions and take responsibility for the consequence of them. This will serve you well in the long run as it will lead you to the truth.
  • Ask questions in a respectful manner and expect a respectful response, although occasionally you will have to accept the response you are given even though you may not like it.

All games and sporting environments depend on the relationship between the players, the rules and the referee. If your aim is to be the best you can be in sport, I would advise that you take the time to learn the rules of the game, take the time to develop the skills needed to play within the rules of the game and remember that just like you the referee is human and will make mistakes.

Best wishes,

David Gough

This essay is an extract from Be the Best You Can Be in Sport- A Book for Irish Youth

Copyright Paul Kilgannon 2021
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