How many pairs of eyes are needed in a top level game? (Part 1)

When one is an IHF insider, particularly in an exposed position such as that of the Referee Chief, one has to be careful about commenting openly and spontaneously about new issues and ideas; they can easily be misunderstood as formal proposals that are about to be introduced, or at least as ideas that have been carefully thought out and tested. So in my capacity of a former IHF insider but now just a web writer, I can be more carefree and bring up topics just for the purpose of provoking reactions and discussion. My provocation today involves the question if there is now a need for additional eyes, as far as the refereeing of games at the absolute top level are concerned.

In part 2, a week from now, I will comment on aspects such as more intensive utilization of the communications system recently introduced for the referees and the supervisor in events at the top level of handball. I will then also touch on the utilization of video cameras and replays in games at those levels where this might be feasible. Positioning will be another consideration. And I will also discuss ways of taking education and training a bit further in the efforts of helping the referees to see and understand what is happening on the court, involving areas such as anticipation, concentration, attention and decision-making. But today I want to concentrate on the question as to whether it would make sense to consider [u]introducing a third referee in games at the highest levels[/u]!

It is almost exactly 40 years since the 2-referee system was officially introduced in handball. (Of course, I am fully aware that in many parts and levels of the overall handball world it remains necessary to use only one referee in a game, simply due to the shortage of qualified referees). During these 40 years, the game has developed tremendously, especially at the elite level. IHF and continental/federations have made major efforts to help the referees through refined instructions regarding work distribution, positioning and running paths. There has been a lot of emphasis on ‘understanding the game’, as a requirement for better anticipation and positioning. Conditioning and agility have been emphasized, partly in combination with a rejuvenation of the referee corps at the international level.

But the basics of the 2-referee system, in terms of the ‘diagonal’ approach and the work distribution have remained unchanged during the entire 40-year period. Is it not reasonable to think that the time has come, at least to [u]examine[/u] whether the existing system is optimally used and even whether it has reached its limits; in other words whether there is scope for adding a third referee at the [u]elite[/u] level?! In the next few paragraphs I am [u]not pushing[/u] for such a change. I will merely try to bring out some of the aspects that would need to be considered in detail. But in doing so, I am naturally hoping that somebody will find the time and the energy to examine these issues in practice!

Clearly one should not consider adding a third referee without analyzing thoroughly the purpose and the role. As I see it, it should add a position, ‘side referee’, that allows someone to observe the action between attackers and defenders in the critical area, between the 6-meter and the 9-meter lines, from another (often better) angle, standing at the side-line. It should also provide relief for the ‘goal referee’ and the ‘court referee’ so that they could focus more on actions away from the ball, which in the case of the goal referee means a more constant focus at the 6-meter line without any conflicting priorities. The court referee should be able to stand further back from the players with a chance to get a broader overview, not necessarily following the ball movements so much, in a position that would also help at quick turnovers.

The main concern if adding a third referee is that there would now be one more person feeling compelled to ‘justify his/her existence’. In other words, one would have to guard against too much overlapping in the responsibilities, especially between court referee and side referee, with a risk for unnecessary or premature interventions. Teamwork and trust would become critical, and ‘preemptive’ communication (through microphone/headsets), like “I have it”, would minimize the risk that a referee feels that it is necessary to step in for a colleague who in fact has decided [u]not[/u] to whistle. There would also have to be a basic guideline that the court referee mainly takes situations outside the 9-meter line and/or near his side-line, while the side referee is the main person for situations between 9 and 6 meters and/or near his side-line.

Obviously, what I have just outlined is only one possible model for using three referees, and experimenting and comparisons might lead to new ideas. There would be a number of specific details to work out under such a system. For instance, would the three referees move up and down the court during long periods without changing their relative positions? This would mean that the ‘side referee’ would be in that role at both ends. (Instead of the current diagonal, it seems clear that the goal referee and the court referee would be near the same side-line). Would it under this system make sense to keep the side referee at one and the same side line all the time, or should one shift the whole ‘triangle’? And another detail, how would one best handle the 7-meter executions? But these are details in the overall scheme…

What I would sincerely hope is that unavoidable transitional problems, like under any type of change, would not discourage people from at least considering the whole idea. Of course such a new system would require adjustments and adaption, but this is what we handled well when the 2-referee system was introduced. Also, during any experimentation, it would be important not be too quick in jumping to conclusions in one direction or the other. Different variations should be tried and one should have a lot of time for feedback from the participating referees. And the testing would have to be done under realistic conditions and in events with elite teams, because this is the only relevant level.

In recent years, the IHF has embraced the notion that the rules and referee development must go hand in hand with the developments in the game itself. Therefore I am optimistic that there will be an interest in looking further into the potential advantages of having a third referee at the elite level.