The younger referee generation: promising, but support and hard work needed

The overall impression is that the referee performances were rarely the focal point during the recent Junior and Youth World Championships.  This is always a good sign.  And perhaps the broad acceptance from the teams was primarily an indication of honest refereeing without any biases.  So it is rewarding to see that an effort that started in a serious way only 6-7 years ago (the IHF’s Global Referee Training Program) has already produced so much.  The IHF clearly now has a good talent pool from which one can draw in coming years.

But as I have been commenting on earlier occasions, there are risks involved in relying heavily on young and relatively inexperienced referees, and it is easy to become too optimistic and move them up the ranks too fast.  The principle is correct:  there are all kinds of reason why a major rejuvenation was needed and the game needs younger and more athletic referees than we had at the elite level in the past.  The demands of the modern game make it necessary.  But, this does not mean that maturity and experience have become unimportant, and this is ‘the other side of the coin’.  With such a focus on younger referees, special efforts are needed to offset the inherent disadvantages, and this is not an easy or quick process.

In the world championships in Greece and Argentina, the referees generally showed a good understanding of the game, they positioned themselves well, and they seemed to know what to look for.  The interventions typically came at the right moment.  They were particularly good at being alert to technical faults etc.  However, the decisions in some key respects sometimes showed a lack of stability and consistency.  In other words, they observed fouls, but they did not always take the right decisions regarding punishments, and they did not manage to maintain a clear line regarding 7-meter decisions.  These are of course critical situations in the game.

Regarding the 7-meter decisions, there was sometimes a strange mixture of giving unwarranted 7-meter throws, when the defender was clearly not inside the 6-meter line or when the attacker did not even have full control of ball and body, and situations where a 7-meter throw was clearly necessary but not given.  This inconsistency would seem to be primarily related to inexperience, in the sense that the right instincts and the right focus have not yet been fully developed.   This is an area where observers and instructors can provide a lot of help, and where referees who aspire to higher levels must work hard to acquire the necessary stability.

When it comes to the application of punishments for excessive fouls, it was more of a one-sided problem.   The referees reacted in the right situation, but then they seemed to become hesitant or to lack the necessary confidence, as the punishments often were missing or not strong enough.  They seemed to ‘forget’ the clear instructions under the 2010 rule book to be much more ready to give direct 2-minute suspensions or disqualifications, instead of ‘using up the yellow cards first’.  Even the young players in the junior and youth events have developed the habit of using careless methods or excessive force.  In fact, their eagerness and lack of experience may make them more prone to overdoing it. 

There were numerous games where the playing style from both teams was quite physical throughout, yet both the TV broadcasts and the match reports showed that the punishments in some cases were amazingly few.  One would get the feeling that it was not so much a matter of having the ‘wrong calibration’ or understanding of IHF’s instructions.   It sometimes looked more as the result of a lack of mental strength, and reluctance to face up to the consequences of unpopular decisions.  One needs to have a good deal of understanding for this.  It does take time to build up the maturity as a person and as a referee, so that the necessary tough action comes instinctively, without hesitation.  But it is far from impossible, and I can myself observe and enjoy the strong progress made by young referee couples whom I have followed from their early days under the auspices of the IHF’s programs.

Here again, the ‘maturing process’ needs to be speeded up with the help of strong and consistent support from competent observers and instructors.  There are no difficulties in finding the necessary educational material and, above all, the relevant video support to make absolutely clear to the referees what is expected from and to give them the feeling of complete backing when they take the correct action.  Positive feedback, and of course a strong correlation between actual performance and future assignment are critical components.  The pressure to improve must be strong and constant.

Unfortunately I have the sense that the constant and determined follow-up of the young IHF referees is rather lacking.  It is clear that adequate support is in most cases not available at the national level, so the IHF must stay involved on a continuous a basis.  But the impression is that once the good efforts have been made to recruit new talents and to bring them up the first step to an initial IHF event, then it seems that the young referees are left too much to their own devices.  To some extent it may be an issue of conflicting priorities, in the sense of insufficient personnel and financial resources, something that the IHF clearly would then need to change.  At least I do hope that the need for this ‘fostering’ and mentoring effort is fully understood!  These referees need to keep maturing and improving, because in a few years they will be needed at the more senior levels where the demands are even higher…