How many pairs of eyes are needed in a top level game? (Part 2)

A few days ago, I took our THN readers on an excursion into a possible future, with a THREE-referee system for the elite level in handball. The premise was that, at the top level, the speed and dynamics of today’s game offers insurmountable challenges for also the best trained referees. There is simply too much to try to observe and react to in today’s elite handball. So, after 40 years of using the 2-referee system, should we not at least consider the possibility of adding a third referee just at this level, and therefore start examining and experimenting with this approach? There has not been much time for feedback on my thoughts yet, but the feedback I have received has been predominantly positive. Handball people agree with the issue, and many feel that at least an unbiased and unprejudiced examination would be appropriate.

But in my article I also promised this ‘Part 2’ which you have now started reading. Here the focus is more on what things we might do to [u]improve the situation under our current 2-referee system[/u]. Of course, we have been continuously trying for many years to assist the referees with training, guidance and new methods. But undoubtedly more could be done. The basic issue is that the referees need to see more of what happens in the game, with a focus on what is relevant and with greater accuracy. And then there is the correct understanding of what happens and the resulting correct or optimal decision-making.

Clearly more can be done to help ensure, even on a mandatory basis in the case of the elite level, that the top referees spend more time with teams during practices to understand better the modern tactics, techniques and methods. An improved ‘[u]understanding of the game[/u]’ obviously contributes to a more correct anticipation of what happens on the court and enables the referees to improve their positioning. But the game understanding also helps the referees properly focus on the relevant aspect of a situation and to interpret better what they physically see but may not otherwise understand correctly. (I will here just mention fitness as another key component in positioning.)

In part 1 I mentioned briefly the recent rejuvenation of the referee corps at the elite level. In part this has been necessary to replace ‘early retirees’, but there has also been a conscious effort to rejuvenate, in line with the increasing focus on fitness, speed and agility. However, there is a downside to this: experience is not exactly irrelevant, let alone a handicap, in the efforts of a referee to handle the job in an optimal way. It is not enough to anticipate and to physically see accurately. In the many complex situations on a handball court, it is also important to know and detect the most relevant cues in what you see. This largely is helped by [u]experience[/u], by having seen the same type of situation ‘a thousand times before’. The same goes for the ability to interpret the cues and translate them into good decision-making. So it becomes critical to help the talented young referees to get the maximum out of their more limited experience, through professional feedback and evaluations, supported by video from their own games and more generally.

There are also scientific methods that help referees (just like the athletes) to improve their [u]visual attention[/u], to reduce their ‘cognitive anxiety’ (e.g., the pressures of the situation), and to upgrade their ability to ‘read complex patterns of moving objects’, i.e., players and balls. For me the comparison with an icehockey goalie is a good one. He might have a more dangerous job, but he really has be razor sharp in focusing on the relevant aspects of a fast-moving and stressful scenery in front of him. And training is available for such functions.

Moving on to other aspects of technology: I have commented in the past on the great advantages that have already been gained from the usage of [u]wireless communications [/u]between the two referees and a supervisor at courtside. The referees are getting increasingly used to this new method and use it more and more intensively. It adds an extra pair of eyes in the sense that one of the referees can help his colleague focus on the right aspect of what is happening at a particular moment, and it is also facilitates a timely exchange of information about important trends in the game. But in that latter sense, an extra pair of eyes is also available if the observations of a really [u]competent supervisor[/u] are used more fully. IHF has initially been very cautious, limiting the interventions to a very specific number of serious issues that fit the supervisor’s traditional role. But this needs to be expanded, assuming it is ensured that the person ‘in the loop’ is indeed a refereeing expert, who should then be able to alert the referees in a much broader set of circumstances with observations and advice.

I have written entire articles about the prospects of using [u]video review [/u]in certain specified situations in games where adequate equipment and staffing is available, i.e., specifically at the very top level. In such situations, however, the capacity does not have to be used entirely in a ‘defensive’ sense, meaning to sort out a problem after the fact. With a video monitor available to the supervisor in the kind of circumstances described in the previous paragraph, the role of the supervisor and the usage of the wireless communications could also be enhanced. With this I mean that it would help the referee supervisor provide more accurate feedback and advice.

Finally, while there has been a particular focus on providing up-to-date guidance regarding running paths and moving patterns (largely thanks to the efforts of my IHF successor Manfred Prause), especially as it relates to counterattacks and other turnovers, there has not been the same strong focus on positioning under the current ‘diagonal’ approach in the 2-referee system. Yes, the emphasis has been on admonishing the goal referee to focus more exclusively on the action at the 6-meter line, something which by default tends to increase the burden for the court referee. But less has been done to help this court referee, and it seems this should be given more attention. In my personal opinion, one thought would be to suggest [u]more flexibility in positioning[/u], picking up on the main advantage of the ‘side referee’ position under a hypothetical 3-referee system by having the court referee swing over to the side line position with some regularity. But additional ideas would surely come up in a brainstorming.

And my whole purpose of today’s comments and ‘Part 1’ a few days ago, is really to [u]encourage brainstorming and to push for an examination of new approaches[/u], both under the 2-referee system and under a possible 3-referee system. We must guard against the old attitude that ‘everything is already perfect!’