Monday, March 27, 2023

Nick Matthew exclusive: squash referees can learn many lessons from rugby

Every year, watching the Six Nations makes me marvel at the way rugby union is officiated – and compare it to the refereeing in squash. I feel there’s much we can learn from the oval ball game.

Rugby has many similarities with squash in that the rules are very complex and the players tend to play right on the edge of the laws: rugby players put hands in at a ruck or maul, while squash players will take opponents’ space and clear *just enough* to allow room for the incoming player. 

The difference between the sports is the blame and respect shown to the referee when he or she decides that a player has stepped over the line between what’s allowed and what contravenes the rules. 

Despite rugby players constantly pushing boundaries, games very rarely spill over into the sort of anarchy that has plagued the PSA World Tour recently. 

Rugby players respect that the referee is in charge. They don’t always agree with his or her decisions, but communication is always clear between the captain and referee and between the referee and the video officials (with conversations TV viewers can hear). 

The bewildering complexities of rugby’s laws don’t have a hugely negative impact on the match as a form of entertainment, because we’re left in no doubt about the rationale and thinking behind every decision – whether we agree with it or not. 

That’s why I think in squash we need to stop obsessing over getting every decision right – because there is no such thing.

Every pro player and referee will look at a borderline decision and see it marginally differently. We need to accept that there are no definitively right or wrong answers. 

To improve the current situation, I think we need to look at two things. Firstly, more onus must be put on the players about their responsibilities in showcasing the sport. Some of the recent behaviour has been atrocious. No-one wants to watch another match like Marwan ElShorbagy v Mostafa Asal at the Houston Open. I have had to switch off some recent men’s matches because they have been decided by refereeing decisions rather than the quality of squash. 

The infamous Asal v ElShorbagy clash at the Houston Open. PIC: PSA/Collin Poon Kong

But more importantly, I think some of the directives given to referees – although well intended – have made it more difficult for them to manage the game. 

Many years ago, there was ridicule when the short-lived Pro Squash Tour outlawed lets, so every decision had to be either a stroke or a no let. However, we currently seem to be heading down the same path. 

As the Egyptian player Aly Abou Eleinen said in a tweet this week, giving a simple ‘yes let’ in contentious scenarios can be a very useful tool for a referee to diffuse situations and prevent events escalating later in the match. 

For example, if you give a stroke against Player A early in the match for his movement, Player B can take liberties thereafter and exaggerate the extent of blocking to encourage further strokes. Likewise, if you give a no let against Player A too early in the game, you’re encouraging Player B to block. 

That’s why there’s nothing wrong with giving a let in borderline situations. If a referee sways strongly one way or the other, they’re giving themselves nowhere to go later in the game. You’ve already made your bed. Whereas if you’ve given lets, then incidents continue, you can say, ‘This isn’t good enough, I’m going to start getting more severe.’ 

That’s where rugby gets it right. After a string of infringements, rugby referees will warn the captain that they will start giving yellow cards if they persist. Then no-one can complain, because they have been warned. 

I’m certainly not saying that every early decision should be a let. If it’s obvious one way or the other, give it. Also, every referee is capable of making howlers, because they’re human. But I strongly believe there’s no such thing as getting every decision right. 

In fact, one of my bugbears is seeing video clips of rallies posted on social media with viewers asked, ‘What is the correct decision?’ The answer is, it’s impossible without the context! 

Every decision should be viewed through the lens of how a referee manages the contest and the players’ personalities, clamping down when needed and not allowing things to develop into disarray. 

Referees have the hardest job in squash and I certainly have no wish to attack them – but comparisons with rugby’s effective enforcement of its complicated rules should definitely give food for thought. 


Nick Matthew was speaking to Mike Dale

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  1. This is well reasoned, thank you.

    Yes, officials have a hard job in all sports. None get every call right. These two factors, along with the pervasive, well-documented anti-official sentiment that exists in society creates a toxic brew. The professionals have an obligation, to set an example for the community. The negative impact of any pro’s failure to do so is real, all the way down to the junior level.

    It starts with personal accountability. The athletes know what is fair and what is not and should hold themselves to the highest standard. Look to professional golf for examples. Personal accountability needs to be combined with respect. The professionals need to respect the officials, and as pointed out in this article, perfection is not possible, therefore should not be expected.

    Can officiating programs and support improve, from grassroots to the highest level? Yes, of course and they must. Are players, parents, coaches or fans justified in being outraged about a call? Never.

  2. Great article. Everything Nick says or does is utter class. We need this lad at the very forefront of the game. This couldn’t be more correct…

  3. This is an interesting perspective to avoid inflaming the situations that occur in squash and the comparison with rugby shows what can be achieved. Good referees already use elements of this and perhaps the emphasis on the goal of match-long consistency isn’t entirely correct.

    Exchanges between referees and players could also be much simpler and quicker (not to mention more polite). All that’s required is “let” (please), decision, play on/”why?”, short explanation (eg. “let if you’re turning”), play on/point out a different problem/”review” (please). Unless there is a review, it shouldn’t take longer than 15 seconds.

    Ultimately though, more fundamental changes may need to be made with a game as confined and adrenaline-fuelled as squash. There may be simplifications that could be made to the rules and marking system that would avoid some of the decisions referees have to grapple with, leaving them to focus on other matters such as providing a line to the ball and unfair conduct. The most interesting idea I have heard recently was to put the onus of decision-making on the players themselves by requiring them to ask for either a let or a stroke. The referee’s call would then be either a let or a stroke or a point to the other player (no let, no stroke) – maybe even let, stroke or point. Despite the differences between the way players see events on court and the way they appear from outside the court, I think this is worth trialling in competitive play. It would also follow a natural progression from self-marked club play to higher levels of the game. The review system would still need to be in place, but it could resolve the problem of cheating very effectively.

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