Wednesday, October 4, 2023

David Pearson Exclusive: Referees need to show they’re in charge but not act like headmasters

Officials need to be in much better positions, make themselves heard, and don’t allow any backchat
By DAVID PEARSON- Squash Mad Guest Columnist

Henrik Mustonen and Joel Hinds discuss a refereeing decision
Henrik Mustonen and Joel Hinds discuss a refereeing decision

In his second blog for Squash Mad, David Pearson (coach of world champion Nick Matthew, world No.2 Laura Massaro and England captain Jenny Duncalf, among others) wades into the debate on referees. Recent incidents on tour and the January appointment of Lee Drew as PSA referees director have thrown a spotlight on to the issue. DP has some forthright views on how squash can diffuse the fractious relationship between players and the decision-makers behind the back wall.


There will always be an issue in squash with lets and strokes. That’s a matter of opinion, and not what I think we should focus on when talking about referees.

The thing that I notice most of all is the lack of control that the referee has over the players.

To me a good referee is a person who doesn’t let the players intimidate him. Even the score should be read out with a voice that shows authority and personality.

What they’re not doing is thinking about the way they speak, how they come across and how they assert themselves – not like a headmaster, just so the players respect them for the way they control a match. That’s the missing ingredient; man-management.

The Australian referee Damien Green is fantastic at this. He controls the players superbly. They feel that the tone of voice he uses is friendly but firm. He has control of the match.

I’d say to Lee [Drew] that he’s got to get referees to understand how to present themselves to players; the way they speak, the way they deal with dissent. A rugby referee is a good analogy. They let the players talk a bit, then they firmly explain why they’ve made their decision and tell the players to get on with it.dpnickesr

There are a few more practical issues with our current refereeing system. Firstly, the referees work for the WSF, not the PSA, so we’ve got two separate governing bodies that aren’t necessarily on the same page.

The other major issue is this: referees don’t get paid. They travel around the world simply because they love doing it. If they were offered, say, £1,000 to go to Chicago for a week, then people might start to think it’s probably worth doing. It would make it a more professional set-up. At the moment there’s simply no incentive. No ex-players go into refereeing. What does that tell you?

Age is another thing I’d highlight. There are no young, dynamic people going into refereeing. They’re all aged 60-70. There’s no young blood coming in. Some of them who were doing it when I was a kid are still around now!

I also think some referees feel slightly uncomfortable around the players, as if they lack a bit of confidence. John Massarella and Roy Gingell, for example, do a reasonable job of keeping control and asserting authority, but some of the others get edgy around the players, which doesn’t help.

Also, the current three referee system may need some tinkering with, in my view.

They should have one guy who makes the decisions on lets and strokes, another operating the video review system, then two other referees should be at the front or the side of the court looking for balls that are out or down.

You get a really good view when you look from the side. You could have one on the backhand, one on the forehand, a main referee and video referee. There would still be four people involved, but the decision making is more clearly defined.

Having said all that, the players have got a lot to answer for. There should be no dissent, in an ideal world. If the referee says it’s a let, the player should get on with it, even if he or she disagrees.PBvideo

The bottom line is, when Peter Nicol played John White there was barely a let, because the sporting behaviour of both was superb. Geoff Hunt was the same. But often players do make life difficult for referees.

This isn’t a recent problem. When I played, I too was guilty of challenging the refs. I don’t think players have got any more or less disrespectful over the years. It’s about the same as it always was.

Unfortunately, it’s become our sport’s culture. It’s become far too acceptable to argue with referees. It’s not a good scene. If you were walking down the street and a person spoke to you like players speak to referees sometimes, you’d end up having a fight.

What’s interesting is that in the final of the Commonwealth Games or World Championships, a high-profile televised game with a lot of people there, players argue with the referee much more rarely.

They’re stopping what they do naturally when it’s a big event because they know it doesn’t make for a good spectacle.

Where you see a lot of poor behaviour is in the early rounds of events where no-one is really around. What’s quite interesting is, when they have to behave, they behave.

David Palmer could sometimes be an argumentative individual but when he played Peter Nicol in the 2006 Commonwealth Games final, he never uttered a word. If that game was in the final of the Chicago Classic, it may have been a different story.

My solution to these behaviour problems would be a set of clearly defined conduct rules that set out consequences.

If, for example, you swear or blaspheme on a squash court, that should automatically be a conduct stroke, not a warning.

If you open a door to come off court and talk to a referee, it should be a conduct stroke straight away.

If you barge into someone’s back and move them forwards, that should also be a conduct stroke.

Once players understand those simple rules, they won’t do it. It would create a very simple atmosphere. I think that’s what our sport hasn’t got. Get rid of the warnings, just introduce simple rules.

It’s really important, whether you are a referee, a coach or a selector, that the players are never in charge.

You cannot let players manipulate you.

As soon as you do that, you’re finished.

Interview by MIKE DALE

Pictures from the Squash Mad archive and image of David Pearson with Nick Matthew courtesy of England Squash and Racketball


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  1. Fair comment Dave. I think the players and Refs’ today do well

    with handling matters. your point of referees not being paid

    however draws more attention and i believe that the tour may

    well benefit by Sponsors assigning a proportion of funding not

    only paying tour Refs’ but cultivating the profession as a

    respected career to perhaps attract some former players too

    out of the woodwork

    like say Nasser Zahran. what do you think?

    Best as Always, your doing a fine job, much respect,

    Rick Hill.

  2. No-one would disagree that refereeing is a difficult job, and that mistakes, or human errors, are bound to happen. I’m sure that everyone would agree that positioning needs to change in order to reduce the bad calls that, so often, affect the outcome of a close contest. Technology could be better used than at present, and there are probably more technical advances in the pipe-line. DP’s final remark about referees, coaches, and selectors having ultimate control over players deserves a little discussion. The Rule Book, it’s understanding and application, is what referees are judged by. Add to that a total awareness of what is happening on court and we have either success or failure, suitability or otherwise. I have yet to hear of a referee admitting to errors that swung a match, a title, a trophy, and prize money. With regard to coaches, surely that is a partnership with the player, on-going as long as progress is made. Results will determine if a coaches input is working, that the training is up to date with the latest demands and technique. A coach can only achieve success by producing successful players, or steadily improving their potential as a competitor. For some, a coaching qualification is a ‘ticket to print money’ with little sense of challenge or responsibility for the player, in which case the player will walk away to control his own destiny when the penny drops. Selection is an oddity in England, with ‘personal choice’ featuring strongly. I do prefer the system followed in Egypt where three criteria events determine which players are selected for inclusion, regardless of ranking or previous history. In other words “Hot or Not”, it is fair, it avoids controversy, and those selected have earned their place in a totally transparent manner.

  3. Many good and interesting thoughts.
    The ideas for ref work on the all glass court seem great. As I see it the bad behavior is initiated at home on your all concrete court perhaps even a court with no glasswall at all. How do we help all our players to behave in a better way alltogether? How do we drive the point of “fair play” to the club?
    From my own experience I do know that players just don’t know the rules and or just don’t give a damn because it’s soooooo important to win. Very few players really practice shot selection to minimize the risk of interference, very few practice court movement. As for court movement I would add that the new rackets really don’t help because you now seem to move much straighter to the ball than you used to. With the old time wooden frames you more or less had to move in L’s to get into a position where you could generate power.
    I want to give much more responsibility to the players but that means that we have to train the players!
    To do this we have to develop trainers. To do this we have to have ONE common set of ideas on how to behave on court and what is accepted. I would like to see much more information and material coming from the WSF to the national organisations for translation and “distribution” to local clubs and trainers.

  4. A conduct stroke for swearing or blasphemy is, quite rightly, given at Sanctioned junior events, but often only cautioned at Senior level. However, at International events a referee would need to be multi-lingual to apply a disciplinary stroke across the entry list. How would he otherwise know when a player is saying “Your mother is a hooker”, “You are a blind old fool”, or “I hope you rot in Hell”, or worse, in Swaheli, Arabic, Hungarian, Russian, Chinese, or Latvian, for example ? It is, therefore, only the English-speaking players who are generally penalised.

  5. I think a better idea would be to dispense with the referees altogether and to make the players responsible for the calls.

    My perspective is as a player-fan. I play squash every week at a local sports club, and I also follow PSA and WSA events on the Internet and try to attend in person when possible.

    At the local level, we don’t have instant replay and three referees, so players must learn the rules and call everything themselves. It leads to good behavior. When there is a dispute, both sides will generally settle for a let. You can stand your ground sometimes, but it becomes very apparent when you’ve done it too much by the way other players treat you.

    On the other hand, I don’t find as a spectator that multiple referees and instant replay add much value to the touring pro game. You get wrong-footed, can’t reach a shot, or watch your opponent’s ball catch the nick, and you go on to the next rally. That’s squash. With even one referee, play gets halted so that players can find out “the call”, with either player, if feeling slighted, taking time for a choice lecture or some melodramatic racquet miming. That detracts from the game for me.

    I think that the touring pros know the rules and could be trusted to police themselves on court. And I think that the self-refereeing is a feature of squash that sets the sport apart. It’s something that squash players should practice and be proud of at every level.

  6. They say that change starts at home. Two of the players that David Pearson coaches, Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro, have bad court manners, pretty much doing all the things that David frowns upon in this column. How can one make a case for meaningful change when one’s own players violate those norms?

  7. Henrik Mustonen, photographed, is one of the cleanest players on the Pro circuit, seldom asks for lets and always makes every effort to play the ball. His approach to the game is probably costing him about twenty places on the World Rankings, frequently a victim to the blockers who gain advantage by their tactics, but also to referees who fail to caution, or penalise, offenders. I do hope that including his photo in DP’s article does not in any way suggest that Henrik is linked to refereeing problems!

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