Over the last two decades, English squash referee Jason Foster has become recognised as one of the top officials in the game and has presided over major finals all over the world.
The 52-year-old, who in 2021 refereed two Platinum finals – the men’s CIB PSA Black Ball Squash Open in Cairo and the women’s Allam British Open in Hull – recently sat down with World Squash Officiating (WSO) media to discuss his pathway into refereeing, the challenges he’s faced, and his favourite memories.
Foster, a former player himself and winner of a number club and county championships, explains that the majority of squash players have alway done some informal refereeing.
“As a player, you’d be marking your mates after a match anyway, although quite often with a beer in hand!” Foster says. “So I got into it that way.”
He adds that he had not considered moving into elite refereeing until a chance meeting at his club, Bishop’s Stortford Squash Club, with former international squash referee William Winter.
“Winter took me to one side and asked if I would like to give refereeing at major events a go. I hadn’t really considered it or thought about it. Because being a player and looking up at the referee, they were, for all intents and purposes, the enemy,” he explains.
Foster adds that after considering his own background, taking the next step towards being a referee made sense: “Because I was once a player, I experienced what it was like to be refereed. I had something to offer and could be empathetic to the players on the squash court. So I felt that if I was able to learn the rules and apply the rules in the right way and deliver it in the right way, I would be able to encourage and enable players to play fantastic matches, which is what we’re all all passionate about. We want a fantastic spectacle.”
The importance of the spectacle is not lost on Foster, who is a squash fan first and foremost. Describing one of the best perks of being a referee, his answer is succinct: “It’s the best seat in the house!”
“It’s the best seat in the house” – referees get an exclusive view of the court.
After beginning his refereeing courses, one of the first events Foster officiated was the British Junior National Championships. Despite the long days, he looks back on those tournaments fondly: “The British Junior Open was a fantastic introduction to refereeing. They start at nine o’clock in the morning, and sometimes the days finish after nine o’clock at night. And you’ve got four or five days on the trot.
“The camaraderie that you have with other referees is great, you build up a lot of friendships as a result of it. You learn a lot from your other referees, about trust and experience.
“It’s also an opportunity to teach and reaffirm the rules to the young the young players, so that they come through and they get the experience of being refereed properly.”
Having impressed at the juniors, it wasn’t long before Foster was invited prestigious refereeing opportunities at major events.
“I got invited to the Canary Wharf event, the very first time it was held here when it was a trial trial event. And I was one of four referees that was invited to do the early rounds here. I don’t think I’d ever been to Canary Wharf ever before until I until I got here. The venue is amazing, it just blows you away. It was a fantastic experience.”
The police officer, who serves with the Avon & Somerset force, adds that the now famously boisterous Canary Wharf crowd is something that contributes to one of the best atmospheres in squash.
“The crowd here is just another experience, you have to learn how to handle and how to project yourself, but also how to handle being in amongst a crowd that are very loud and passionate about the game. When you’re marking or refereeing a match, quite often there’s about 40 or 50 other referees in all in the crowd, offering you their decision or tips on how they would have dealt with it!”
While the intensity of the crowds did take some getting used to, Foster explains that this is not the most challenging part of his job.
“It’s easy to make a decision, with essentially three to choose from. But the problems arise when someone says ‘why?’ or ‘what’s that for?’. That’s when you need the skills to be able to let them know your reasons why, how you are interpreting what’s just happened and explaining to them what you’ve seen and how you’d like the problem to be resolved.
“There are times that it becomes quite challenging when some players don’t accept the decision. We have a code of conduct we can use to deal with that, which, unfortunately, I’ve had to use in the past, it’s not a nice thing. I don’t enjoy that part of it at all. But there comes a time sometimes when someone confronts or challenges you with their behaviour, and you have to deal with it. That’s hard. That’s challenging.”
Fortunately for Foster, those times are rare, and he reflects fondly on the beginning of his globe-trotting career after a positive appraisal at Canary Wharf.
“My first event I got invited to was the world open in Bermuda. My wife at the time said ‘I’ve never been to Bermuda, and you’re not going without me!’ So I had to decline that unfortunately. The next event was I got invited to was the 2008 Hong Kong Open. This time, she said ‘I’ve been to Hong Kong, so you can go!’
“It was a fantastic event, and a great experience going to a place like Hong Kong. I met other referees from other countries and got to know them. I forged friendships too and still to this day am in contact with the people that I met there. I ended up refereeing a semi final between Thierry Lincou and Gregory Gaultier. It was a fantastic experience for me, watching the final being played in in a shopping mall in Hong Kong. I was really lucky and had a great time.”
For more information about squash refereeing, including how to begin your career for free, visit: worldsquashofficiating.com