Career Changers Sports Career Change

Karl Dickson’s career change: From rugby player to referee

Balancing playing rugby whilst taking the qualifications to become a referee was very difficult. At the end of the day, you have to sacrifice certain things to try and progress in the new job. So that was the sacrifice I decided to make. I had to make time to referee and take time to progress otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to move into that career straight away.

Karl Dickson, a Premiership referee and former professional rugby scrum-half, has made the transition from player to referee.

He started working on his referee training in 2014, while still playing professionally. He is now part of the Rugby Football Union’s Professional Game Match Officials Team. Dickson rose through the ranks of the National Panel, working as a referee at schools, leagues, and national level tournaments. He is now regarded as one of England’s top 55 referees, having officiated at two A-league semi-finals.

Dickson started his rugby career in 2004 at Bedford Blues after three years, finally moving to  Harlequins in 2009. The Scrum half played 169 games and scored 100 points before retiring in 2017 to become a full-time referee. Dickson also played for England in 2011 and 2012.

From playing rugby to refereeing  

How did playing rugby as a hobby during school turn into a career?

I played at school and it was fun, but after a while I just stopped enjoying the sport. During my final year at university being a demand for Bedford, I thought I’d give it another go. Lucky, I did. A couple of years break from it has done wonders. I joined Bedford not even as a professional, just as a walk-on.

One day I contacted Bedford rugby club and said, I’d love to come down and train. I played for the second team for a half year. Fortunate or not fortunate a couple of players in my position retired and got injured and left. That gave me an opportunity to get into the first team, still as an amateur. After my second year at Bedford, I wanted to focus on rugby and turned all my attention to it.

What did you do part-time alongside rugby?

I worked as a learning support assistant at school. I worked at a pharmaceutical company doing anticoagulation trials for two years.

Why did you leave rugby to become a referee?

It was coming towards the end of my career, I knew I probably had had a good two or three years left in me. While I was at Harlequin’s someone mentioned refereeing. It’s something that I never really thought about before. Two years before I retired, I started taking refereeing. I did the course and started building through the levels with rugby. When it came to the final year in my contract, I had an offer on the table still from Harlequin’s to carry on. I thought the long-term-wise refereeing was probably something I wanted to do and pursue.

Why refereeing and not any other job?

One of the players mentioned to me and I tried out and just thoroughly enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it as I did with rugby. I’d thought I’d love to try and take refereeing further and I was fortunate the RFU gave me an opportunity to do that. From that point, I didn’t need to look into any of the opportunities that presented themselves. I was very lucky that they offered me a contract to join them. I’m very grateful I stayed in the game of rugby.

What are pros and cons of playing rugby?

Waking up every day and doing a job that you really enjoy. Hanging around with your friends, day in, day out, it’s not a normal nine to five. You are outside a lot, and you get to train to stay physically fit which is fantastic. It’s very good financially, it can set you up for life, being a professional sportsman.

The biggest downside is the fact that when all your friends are working during the week, you’re working on the weekend. That was a major concern, but other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed my time.

What are pros and cons of refereeing?

Refereeing is similar to rugby. You wake up every day and do a job you enjoy. You get to train and stay physically fit. Again, like playing you have to spend your time on the weekends working rather than during the week, when everyone is off.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world with both jobs. For me, there are more benefits, there are not many negatives around it. Certain people think about the cons in different ways, but for me, it’s just the weekends. Where you could be away for a whole weekend, or a long time not being able to see family and friends.  It’s a massive privilege to be able to do both playing and refereeing.

Karl Dickson
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fearless_fred/albums/72157636998332586

Making the career change

How and when did you start thinking about your career change?

It was two and a half years before I retired. I took the referees course and started refereeing on and off in that period. As I did more games and progressed, I thought this could be a real serious career change for me. I still, had that sort of doubt, would there be a job from the RFU or not. I’ve got a contract by Harlequin’s to carry on playing and I was very fortunate. The RFU offered me a contract to become a professional referee.

I would say two and a half years before is when I probably took the potential there. A year before I retired is when I knew this was the potential to change my career.

How was balancing playing rugby whilst taking the qualifications to become a referee?

It was very difficult to balance. I could play Friday night and then refereeing on a Saturday, or be playing Saturday and then refereeing on a Sunday.

At the end of the day, you have to sacrifice certain things to try and progress in the new job. So that was the sacrifice I decided to make. I had to make time to referee and take time to progress otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to move into that career straight away.

What challenges did you have to overcome to become a referee?

I had to learn the law of the game, even as a player I didn’t probably know all the laws I needed. That was not a challenge, but something I had to invest a little bit of time in. When I was transitioning from player to referee, my training changed. As a player, you needed to do a certain type of training, like building strength, whereas as a referee, you need that strength, but it’s more conditioning and running around and it’s a very different type of fitness.  I had to adapt in that way.

The family life was a massive challenge, you sacrifice all this time to go and train and referee when you could be at home with your family.

What is your typical day like?

As a referee, pre covid we’d be in a Monday morning gym session. So, fitness and weights. We’d then go into our game reviews from the weekend. After we would discuss the clips from the weekend, we would come up as a whole referee group to try and get some consistency and good outcomes of learning.

On a Tuesday it would be conditioning and weights again and probably previewing games coming up for the weekend as a group and looking at certain areas of the games.

On a Wednesday, we do our own personal previews for the weekend, contact our team for the weekend, make sure that we’ve done all our learning and what we want to take in the weekend’s games. Thursday normally is a kind of day off. Friday, you might do a light training session. Then depending on when you’re refereeing Saturday or Sunday.

Being a sportsman, our careers are quite short-lived

Why do you think a career change is a good thing?

A sportsman’s career is quite short-lived, at some point you’re going to have to look into another career. In other jobs, sometimes, people go from the age of 18 up to retirement. I think the biggest key, whatever you do in your job or anything you’re looking at, is to enjoy it. Do I look forward to doing it? Do I still love what I do? If you don’t, then obviously there’s a vast number of jobs out there that you can do.

When you are working, even in the job you’re in, it’s always good to invest in other areas that you can learn from. There are so many open university courses you can do online, which can make you a better person, to add to your experience. This ultimately can make you think about a career change that you might want to go into, something that you might enjoy a little bit more than a job you do.

I’d always say, invest in other things and never just be happy with what you got. You can always try and better yourself.

Travelling and transferable skills


Can you tell me some interesting stories from both careers, being a player and a referee ?

Between 2011 and 2013 was Harlequin’s most successful period. We won the Amlin Cup, the Premiership, and then the LV cup. Just being part of that team, was really special, probably the most successful time that Harlequins have ever had.

As a referee, I was lucky enough to go to the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Japan is an unbelievable place, amazing, a new experience every day.

Wherever you go in your career, you want to be able to evolve and use that experience of using the past to be a better person

Did moving or travelling give you a different perspective of the world?

When you go away it is important to adapt to different cultures. It’s a privilege to be going around the world with a job for free to do something you enjoy. Travelling has been a massive part of my life. I think those experiences made me grow as a person and that’s part and parcel of what you want to do in your job.

What life or transferable skills have you learned from both jobs?

As a player, my position was very much vocal. The biggest adaptation for me was going from a position where I was talking all the time, and shouting commands to being a referee. As a referee, you still shout commands and give instructions, but in a calmer sort of way. When I speak to the players as a referee, my tone and the way I speak are a lot calmer, you have to be careful with what you say and how you say it.

You want to be able to adapt to each situation. You can adapt from playing to refereeing, having had the benefit of being on both sides.

How has your career so been impacted by the coronavirus?

During the first lockdown, all sport stopped. So, like many others, we went on furlough. We were very fortunate because in the summer rugby started up again, due to being an elite sport. After the first lockdown we’ve not been impacted much.

The most surreal thing is not having any crowds in the stadiums. We’re looking forward to having our supporters back in the coming weeks. Every sportsman, every referee wants the crowd to be part and parcel of the game because it has a massive impact on everybody on the field.

Childhood dreams and educational background

Growing up was rugby a dream of yours?

When I was in school, I played rugby until I was 17, then I went to university and stopped playing. Towards the end of university I played a few rugby games. I transferred to Bedford University to do a PGCE and I thought I would give rugby another go, and luckily, I did.

What was your childhood dream job?

I don’t think I had a dream job. Everybody dreams to be a sportsman, but I never really thought of it like that. My dad was in the army, so I just always thought I’d end up in the forces, probably the RAF.

What’s your educational background?

Sports and exercise science from Coventry university where I graduated in 2003. After this, I went to Bedford university to start a PGCE.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers?

I think the biggest advice I can give to anybody is to invest in yourself. Always try to better yourself. You never know what opportunities can be presented to you. You never know what’s going to happen in the future, or whom you’re going to speak to and you never know what someone’s going to offer you.

If you can, always be proactive and go out. Go out your way to speak to people in different industries because you never know what’s out there.


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