Skip to main content

How to Know What the Referee Is Signaling While Watching Football

If you can't hear the ref's calls above the roar of the crowd, you can still follow what's going on if you know a few basic signals.


  • Step 1: Score! Watch for the referee signaling a touchdown, field goal, extra point, or successful try by raising their arms straight up over their head. Raising their hands above their head with palms together signals a safety.
  • TIP: If the ref points their arm and body toward the defensive team's end of the field, the offense has a first down.
  • Step 2: Spot penalties Officials signal a personal foul by hitting one wrist with the other over their heads. If the ref tugs on an imaginary facemask in front of their face, that's a facemask foul. Illegal contact is signaled with an open hand extended forward. If the ref looks like a human "T" on the field, they're calling unsportsmanlike conduct.
  • Step 3: Spot more penalties An illegally touched ball is indicated with a fingertips-tap on both shoulders. Illegal use of hands, arms, or body is called by grasping one wrist, the hand open and facing forward in front of the chest. Grabbing one wrist, the fist clenched, with the other hand in front of their chest means a holding foul.
  • TIP: Many rule violations result in a loss of a down, which the ref signals by placing both hands on the back of his head.
  • Step 4: Too many men and delay of game If you see too many men on the field, look for the referee to put both hands on top of their head. If the official is crossing their arms over their chest, he's calling a delay of game foul.
  • Step 5: Spinning arms Spot a false start, illegal formation, or kickoff or safety kick out of bounds when the official spins their forearms in front of their body.
  • Step 6: Take a time out Teams can take a time out only after the ref has crisscrossed their wrists above their head, with their palms open. If the ref follows that signal by putting one hand on top of their cap, it's a referee's time out. But if they follow by swinging an arm at their side, it's a touchback, meaning a team receives possession of the ball at its own 20-yard line.
  • TIP: If the official wants to reset the play clock, they wave one forearm up and down in front of them for a 25-second reset and wave both forearms to add 40 seconds.
  • Step 7: Refuse a penalty If a team refuses a penalty, expect the official to wave their straightened arms on a horizontal plane, crossing them in front. They will also do this if a pass is incomplete, a play is over, or if a field goal or extra point is missed.
  • FACT: NFL referee Ed Hochuli, one of the league's best-known officials, established himself as a successful lawyer in Phoenix in the off-season.

You Will Need

  • Focus on the referee's gestures

Popular Categories