IHF’s GRTP — A success story, but the hard work needs to continue

Many of you will scratch your heads in trying to figure out what the acronym ‘GRTP’ stands for. I cannot blame you: it is mostly known by the insiders in the world of refereeing. But it stands for ‘[u]Global Referee Training Program’[/u], and I think you will be interested in hearing a bit about it.

Traditionally, the IHF always had a tough time recruiting talents for the level of international referees from most of the countries outside Europe. These countries generally do not have many resources to train young referees. Similarly, most countries in all continents used to be in the habit of identifying candidates for the international level in the age bracket of 30-40, so that in the past the typical age of IHF referees would be about 35-50.

It was, of course, becoming increasingly problematic that not enough countries could supply candidates. And then the age structure was becoming a problem for a couple of reasons. First, with the increasing demand on the top referees, with many more matches per year, it was becoming evident that not many can stay on to the mandatory retirement age of 50; for work or family reasons, they need to retire at a younger age. Then the stronger emphasis on the fitness of the referees, in line with increasing speed and physical action in a game, was also becoming a reason for a focus on a younger age bracket. Realistically, the career of an IHF referee would now more typically be something like 30-43. (In football, FIFA has a mandatory retirement age at 45!)

The idea of some form of a GRTP had always been supported by the IHF President. However, this support was offset by the impact of micromanagement. About 5 years ago, rather than further debating the precise procedures and methods, the Referee Commission found it possible to move ahead with a particular approach that we believed in, figuring that actual success would lead to retroactive agreement on the details. And the success was soon noticeable, not just in terms of a flow of viable candidates of the right age and from a broad spectrum of countries, but also in terms of a nice and enthusiastic collaboration from the federations concerned.

Since 2005, well over 20 GRTP courses have been held in 4 different continents. Most of the courses outside Europe are for the identification of candidates and initial training. Annually, there are then some major youth tournaments in Europe used as a basis for further training and testing of the candidates. The viable candidates tend to need 2 or 3 courses before they can be seen as beginning to meet the standards for an IHF referee. The testing includes not just match performances and fitness, but also English proficiency and social competence. After all, these young referees are not placed on the IHF List just as an honor or as an indication of talent for the longer term; they must be ready to handle a Junior World Championship typically within a year or so.

Looking at the results in terms of numbers, the quick progress of the GRTP is really astounding. For the 2009-10 season, there are about 80 couples on the IHF List, and almost exactly three quarters of them have come up through the GRTP in recent years. So the overall turnover on the List has been tremendous, something that is partly due to a much higher rate of rate of retirements than had been expected, and partly because the progress of the new talents has enabled the IHF to release some older referees who had begun to stagnate or decline. In other words, the success of the GRTP has really been very fortunate and timely.

The success has not just been noticeable in terms of numbers. The best part of the experience was the widespread praise from coaches and other team officials in connection with the Junior and Youth World Championships this past summer. The assessment was that the standard of refereeing at this type of events was higher than ever. Even more remarkable is that 13 of the 16 couples nominated for the just concluding Women’s World Championship are GRTP ‘graduates’, and the same goes for 7 of the 12 couples nominated for the Men’s European Championship. This experience should really provide a lot of encouragement for future recruits. It is possible, through hard work and determination, to combine one’s talents with the IHF’s support into a strong and rewarding international career.

The only surprising and disappointing note is that some of the countries that in the past, prior to the introduction of the GRTP, always tended to supply good IHF referees, now seem to have become complacent or have not quite understood the new methods and procedures. In some cases, they are stuck in the traditions of giving priority to older referees. The countries I am referring to are mainly to be found among traditional handball countries in ‘western’ Europe, whereas, in nice contrast, almost all countries in ‘eastern’ Europe have quickly taken advantage of the GRTP route. The progress in the other continents has also been remarkable. So, please, ‘wake up’ those of you who must realize that my finger is pointing at you!

It is of course very nice if young referees with relatively limited international experience are already capable of handling the biggest events. But this is not a cause for complacency and relaxation. The experience in the Women’s World Championship has been generally positive, albeit with the usual sprinkling of sudden shakiness, just as among the teams. But this does [u]not[/u] mean that these referees have already become an established ‘elite’. They have climbed quickly to this level, and most of them met the expectations of the IHF and of the teams. But it is a well-known fact that [u]nobody can get firmly established at the top without a lot more experience and, especially, a lot of hard work, year after year[/u].

IHF must now shift gear and focus more on continued [u]nurturing of the already existing talents[/u], i.e., more on solidifying the quality than on just increasing the quantity of GRTP graduates beyond what is really needed. And the respective [u]national and continental federations must also provide strong support[/u]. The top group needs constant coaching and supervision. One particular concern is the lack of continuous international match experience for the non-European members the emerging elite group. For them it is not realistic to remain competitive solely on the basis of the games available within their own respective continents. IHF and the federations in Europe must be willing to offer them frequent opportunities in a systematic manner!