Converting top players to top referees

A few weeks ago I read with interest an article in the German handball web site In summary, people interviewed in the article argued for the idea that retiring top players could quickly become top referees on the basis of their practical sense for the game at the top level and their personal experience with the many complex situations on the court that are difficult for the referees to evaluate. So many judgments in a game are based on the knowledge of tactics and the ability to anticipate action, to see correctly what happens and to ‘feel’ what this means. Handball refereeing [u]is[/u] a demanding job.

My reactions to the comments in the article were of course generally positive. Who could be against the idea of improving the recruitment of candidates for the elite referee level!? It was also nice to see that several well-known players, coaches and federation representatives were so supportive. In order to convince former top players to become referees, this is the attitude that is needed. But I also had to smile a little bit at some of the comments.

For instance, one could get the impression that this is a brand new idea that nobody had thought of or tried before. Clearly this is not the case, as I am aware of such efforts both from a large number of traditional handball countries and also some new handball countries that do not have a cadre of experienced referees. In fact, I have myself been involved with such efforts both internationally and at the national level during the last 30-40 years (Sweden and USA). It was suggested that candidates could easily be found and that the main obstacle would be their reluctance to start at the bottom and move their way to the top very slowly. And I also suspect that it is easy to underestimate the difficulties involved in making the transition from a top player to a top referee.

First of all, despite encouragement from federations and coaches, it would not be realistic to think that suddenly large quantities of top players would become interested in refereeing. They are likely to continue to prefer other roles, including coaching, if they want to stay involved when retiring as players. So it could never become the main source for the elite referee category. But [u]even a small increase would be helpful[/u], so there is no reason to be negative. Then the argument about being treated as all other beginners, without any chance to start higher and/or move up faster is likely to be flawed. In my experience this is not what happens. Smart national federations realize that they have to be flexible and give credit for the experience and talent they want to draw on. So they are likely to make whatever exceptions that are warranted [u]in the individual case[/u], depending on the ability demonstrated.

Although it is now beyond my influence, I dare assume that also the IHF would set aside normal age limits and happily receive ‘special’ candidates outside the normal programs and progressions. I could even imagine that the IHF/PRC would give clear signals to encourage national federations to strengthen their efforts in this respect. Indeed, instead of just waiting passively for possible candidates to come forward, such efforts should be proactive, in the sense that players with the right attitude and personality should be sought out and approached. Also, I would not limit the search to national team players; 1st and 2nd division players in major handball countries would clearly be able to bring the relevant experience. In any case, it is doubtful that the absolute star players would be the first ones to volunteer, and personally I am not so sure that their standing as stars would be an advantage.

It was also correct and useful that some of the contributors emphasized that the ‘status’ of the refereeing job would be an inhibiting factor in attracting former top players. Indeed, the same applies to [u]all[/u] recruitment for the refereeing function. And here the national federations have a heavy responsibility. I do not think that financial compensation is the main issue, although it is certainly a factor. There are many other things that are important: better educational and mentoring capacity, combined with the availability of stronger match delegates, would make a big difference; but a general increase in the priority, support, and protection given to the referee function is also needed.