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PRO Insight

PRO Insight: ‘Tool or Weapon?’ – Challenging with Hands/Arms

As part of ongoing technical work MLS officials are currently undertaking, they continue to examine players’ upper body challenges, with the goal of consistently identifying the severity of such actions through greater awareness.

So what considerations and techniques are officials currently using?

For a number of years now, the IFAB and FIFA have used clear definitions of what constitutes a careless challenge, a reckless challenge and a challenge that is more serious, using excessive force:

  • Careless is when a player shows a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acts without precaution. No disciplinary sanction is needed
  • Reckless is when a player acts with disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent and must be cautioned
  • Using excessive force is when a player exceeds the necessary use of force and/or endangers the safety of an opponent and must be sent off

The application of these definitions on severity is no different in MLS.

In addition to this, FIFA considerations help officials define reckless hand/arm challenges with the phrase ‘used as a tool’. A simple definition of this is when the hand or arm is used by the player to help accomplish whatever (s)he is trying to do.

Examples of this could be gaining an advantage in an aerial challenge, creating space, or trying to win a physical battle with an opponent. If the hand/arm is used to assist in doing this unfairly, the officials will normally identify this as using the hand/arm as a tool, and sanction the offense with a yellow card (caution):

Example 1: Reckless Use of Arm (Rubiel Vazquez and Armando Villarreal)


Officials are also trained to be aware of their responsibility in identifying those foul challenges with the hands/arms that involve excessive force (and therefore endanger the safety of their opponent) and must be considered serious foul play, subsequently resulting in a red card (sending off). In its considerations, this is what FIFA classes as use of the hand/arm as a ‘weapon’ (designed to inflict injury or harm on an opponent):

Example 2: Excessive Force (Allen Chapman and Dave Gantar)


So how are officials trained to be able to recognize these types of upper body challenges, especially when for much of the time the ball is on the ground? Improved concentration on recognition of visual cues is a key component.

Alan Black, PRO’s Head of Education and Coaching, explained: “We are aware that players can challenge with hands or arms at any point in the game. However, we have identified some game scenarios to help the referees recognize the potential for possible contact with hands or arms, and to therefore be better prepared to judge the severity of any offenses.

“These include players receiving the ball from a pass, players protecting the ball, and players running for the ball in close proximity to their opponents. In addition to this, players jumping for the ball with their opponents can lead to many types of contact with hands or arms. In all of these scenarios, there are important recognition skills an official must possess to get ahead of any potential challenge.”

On receiving or protecting the ball (often on the ground), officials are trained to be aware of features such as:

  • Are the arms out to make the receiver of the pass bigger?
  • Is the receiver of the pass looking at the opponent as the ball comes?
  • Is the receiver of the pass backing into their opponent?
  • Is there an illegal hand or arm movement as a player tries to quickly break free or play the ball?
  • Is the player who is protecting the ball swinging their arms?

The following clips are examples of reckless challenges with arms when players were receiving or protecting the ball (yellow card).

Example 3: Receiving/Protecting the ball (Robert Sibiga, Allen Chapman and Ted Unkel)


Whereas when players are running for the ball, officials are also aware of:

  • Are the arms of players swinging above waist level during the running motion?
  • Are players, at times, potentially looking at their opponent while in possession or out of possession?
  • What is the arm movement of players after a quick change in the direction of the body?
  • Is the elbow movement of players running potentially leading to unwanted contact?
  • Any close physical contact, does it involve hands or arms?

These two incidents illustrate illegal reckless challenges with the arms when running with or for the ball (yellow card)


Example 4: Running for the ball (Tim Ford and Alex Chilowicz)


When players of opposing teams are jumping to challenge for the ball, there are many factors officials are distinguishing between, to identify unfair contact, including:

  • Is the hand or arm already in position on the jump or does it move while in the air toward the opponent?
  • Is a player looking at the opponent rather than the ball?
  • Is the hand or arm pushing down on the head of an opponent?
  • Is the hand or arm moving across the face of an opponent?
  • Is the hand or arm pushing into the neck of an opponent?

Officials are also made aware to pay attention to the particular danger caused by a player jumping near and extending their arm in an unnatural manner (are they causing danger with the movement of the elbow, for example?).

In all of the following incidents, the offender is guilty of a reckless challenge with the arm (yellow card).


Example 5: Jumping for the ball (Ramy Touchan  and Jair Marrufo)


So how do officials give themselves the best opportunity to accurately judge severity after picking up on the potential warning signs that there could be illegal use of the hand or arm in a challenge?

Black continued: “We encourage the officials more so than ever on the fundamentals of good positioning and angle of view, in addition to heightened concentration and awareness of unfair contact.

“Teamwork is another vital component, with every member of the officiating crew having a different angle and proximity, and the awareness to know they potentially may need to provide important information, all of which goes into the process of getting the decisions correct.”



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