Science of football: Referees

Comments()
Getty Images
Should the expectations, treatment and training of players be extended to referees?

SCIENCE OF FOOTBALL:    KHATIJA BAHDUR        


In my previous column I spoke about how fatigue can be emotional, physical, mental. I further explained that regardless of its cause, fatigue will always decrease performance for both players and referees.

Within any team structure, team physicians, sport scientists, strength and conditioning coaches and sport psychologists are working hard with the technical team to minimise fatigue and thus optimise performance.

Periodization became a popular word within the South African football scene, a long-applied term which talks about breaking down a season into specific cycles trying to find the right balance between work and recovery.

One of the effects of training is ‘damage’ to the body. This ‘damage’ is higher when workloads are high, so high intensity sessions or matches will all result in greater damages. 

This ‘damage’ is necessary for training changes to occur. It helps make the body faster, stronger, more powerful. However, for positive changes to happen in the body, these heavy days must be followed by enough recovery.

Insufficient recovery time will increase the likelihood of fatigue, overtraining and eventually burnout.

There may be periods within the season when the aim is to induce fatigue and help train the person to think and execute actions when tired. These situations are done within specific periods of the season, and should not involve competition.

Zakhele Siwela GFX

What does this mean for referees?

 The physical and cognitive match demands of referees are equivalent to players.

Referees usually cover similar distances as midfield players, which highlights their intense workload in a single match. Suggested recovery time for matches has been two days with recent research indicating that five days might be needed.

Three days recovery is sufficient as long as it doesn’t happen all the time. When constituently having 2 games per week then longer recovery is required with new evidence pointing to 5 days.

This includes managing travel, minimising the tiring nature of travel- this includes local travel-, controlling training loads, using individualised and specific and varied recovery techniques, individualising nutrition and diet plans, maximising sleep duration and quality, using appropriate warm-up and cool down techniques, providing psychological support and keeping motivation high among others.

This is no different as it would be for teams.

We often hear teams complaining about matches every three days. Coaches employ rotation principles, resting players when required, managing amount of game time through substitutions, sometimes giving players full time off.

Referees do not have this luxury, in fact the opposite can be true.

CARTOON: The garbage referee

In South Africa, there has been several incidents where referees have refereed two games a weekend, sometimes this is where one appointment might be as a forth official (thus resulting in mental fatigue) and sometimes this is acting as the referee or assistant referee in two games over the course of a weekend.

Even developmental leagues such as the MDC or varsity cup have employed national panel referees, which not only hinders referee development but contributes to fatigue levels of referees.

Referees, when not appointed on a weekend are also told to contribute to their local, regional, or provincial structures by actively officiating at these levels.

This means, a rare weekend off which could incorporate good recovery cycles and promote positive changes to the body are now used to further over-train. Given the repetitive cycle, burnout and the risk of injury increases within the refereeing community.

With so many matches in so little time, the physical demands are clear. It also means that referees have little time for training.

Theoretically, referees should be using periodization. However, this involves planning a week or two in advance even if in extreme circumstances.

When fixture dates, times and venues are confirmed, one can prepare.

A referee doing a game in Richards Bay will need to prepare for the humidity in those conditions, whereas a match in Thohoyandou can come with extreme heat.

Collina Perugia Juventus Serie A

If not trained properly for these varying circumstances, fatigue is introduced earlier on during matches.

This leads to increasing injury risk and increasing the likelihood of erroneous decisions.

Besides the exact match preparation, referees need to know how to prepare their general training schedule-  when to have a high-intensity session, when to do different types of training.

However, referees only get their appointments a few days before the game. This means their training might be too little or too much in the run-up to the game to be in peak condition for the game. It also minimises the psychological and general match preparation.

Then there is the mental fatigue. The concentration required for a match, irrespective of the officials’ role is taxing on the mind.

Sport psychologists will talk of the mental preparation required for every competition, looking at things like mental periodization, teaching skills like visualisation techniques and managing the mental workload before every competition.

When doing different games in such a short period, it has to compromise mental and cognitive ability. How do you prepare adequately for a match when you have so little time to be able to process the last match and switch to the next?

Article continues below

Mental fatigue is made worse by media, team and public scrutiny, leading to increasing stress levels, and sometimes decreasing confidence levels. This applies even in cases where referees’ decisions have been correct but are wrongly judged as mistakes. 

In part two, we will look at the other aspects that can impact referee performance. 

Dr Khatija Bahdur is a Sport Science lecturer at the Nelson Mandela University and has worked in football for the past 10 years

Close