“Refereeing is something I really, really enjoy. But it is challenging, and can be bittersweet.”
Andrea Santamaria is one of the few female referees at the top of the game. Last year, she was just one of two women to have refereed at a Platinum event on the PSA World Tour. Today, the Yorkshire, England, based official sat down with WSF media to share her advice for aspiring referees, as well as the highs and lows of refereeing at the highest level.
For Santamaria, who last year oversaw the final of the CIB PSA Black Ball Squash Open and balances her squash career with being a pharmaceutical technician for the NHS, the appeal of being a referee is obvious.
“We’re very much a family that revolves around squash. I love squash and have always played, since my early teens. I just enjoy being involved in the game, the atmosphere, I love watching the game, I like playing the game. And I really do enjoy being there and giving back and helping, as a referee,” she says.
Since rising through the ranks with England Squash, where she was recognised as squash referee of the year in 2018, Santamaria has officiated matches between some of the world’s top players on the PSA World Tour.
Reflecting on her time with the World Tour, Santamaria looks back fondly on last year’s Black Ball final between Nour El Sherbini and Amanda Sobhy, the first Platinum final of her career. “It was a match that really flowed, with no arguing or trying to con a decision. That was a great match for me and a fantastic opportunity that I was given.”
Santamaria adds that a flowing and entertaining match is always at the forefront of a referee’s mind, something that is not always understood by fans. “I think sometimes the public don’t appreciate what a referee is trying to do. The aim is to get the game flowing and make the players play, and sometimes it may appear harsh when a referee is telling a player they could have reached a ball, but actually that harsh decision could make for a really good game,” she explains.
With the close proximity between fans and referees, being able to ignore distractions is one of the key skills of a squash referee, Santamaria says. “You’ve got to be able to concentrate at all times and block out the public. Because we’re sat in the crowd and everybody has got an opinion on what the decision should be. It’s important that you are sure in yourself. You’ve got the knowledge, you know the rules, so you have to have self belief and not doubt yourself. When a referee starts second guessing, that’s when it can go terribly wrong.”
Another challenge Santamaria faces is something she says is part of a broader cultural issue: the biases female officials in squash and other sports face. “I think there is that, definitely, whether people like to admit it or not. The culture is unfortunately there, and there is a gender divide and some people do see a female and think ‘Well, she’s not going to have a clue what she’s doing.'”
The Yorkshirewoman adds that this is something that has become more noticeable with the ever-growing prominence of social media, where cruel comments can spread easily.
On dealing with these issues, Santamaria says the most important thing is to never take the comments personally. “I have had comments, and it’s not easy. But if you start taking things personally, it’s a very difficult road to carry on. I had a lot of issues when I was new, where people would have issues with the fact that you’re new and female. That’s where the support from fellow referees was important. They give you encouragement and advice, how they’ve dealt with things and how to not take it to heart. But for me, it’s not about gender. Abuse on social media for men and women is unacceptable.”
Just as keeping calm in the face of criticism is essential, so too is staying relaxed during a heated match. “Let’s face it, when we have a dog’s dinner of a match and you’ve got two players shouting, it’s not good for the sport,” Santamaria says.
She adds that when players are becoming frustrated, either towards each other or the referee, the key is to keep calm and make things as clear as possible. “Sometimes, you have to try to defuse a situation somehow. If things are getting heated, think about the explanations that you give and try to help the players understand. It’s not always easy when the red mist comes over, so try and make things as simple as possible and hit that reset button and start again.”
Besides being able to block out distractions and keep calm under pressure, Santamaria says total confidence in your own knowledge of the rules is essential: “The World Squash Officiating site is great and I keep mentioning it to everyone. I think it’s a really good site for everyone, starting from juniors to anyone wanting to really get a grip on rules. There are great clips on there that explain the reasoning behind decisions, from all levels from from easy decisions to very difficult and technical decisions. It’s an absolutely fantastic website and has to be your first port of call if you are interested in refereeing.”
After WSO, Santamaria says the next thing anyone wanting to get involved in refereeing should do is look for courses or speak with a referee at an event. “If anyone, female or male, comes to an event and I’m there, I’m more than happy to sit down and have a chat to share a little bit of what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about it. Especially at junior events, come along to the referee’s room and come and have a chat and we can sort out having you sit with us and observe and get you on that pathway to becoming a referee.”
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