Modern-day referees are top athletes; UEFA's referee fitness expert Werner Helsen explains how he and his team have meticulously prepared the match officials for duty at UEFA Euro 2016. The days of the rotund referee, often a figure of fun for fans, are long-since past. Today's elite match officials are top-level athletes in their own right, dedicated to fitness and striving for maximum performance in the modern-day, high-pace, high-stakes game.
The project for Euro 2016 started four years ago. Each year, Helsen's team have carried out meticulous assessments, concluding with the referee teams undertaking fitness tests at their Euro preparatory workshop in Paris in April. The tests involved two sprints of 40 metres, followed by the yo-yo intermittent recovery test, and the results were very positive. "The yo-yo intermittent recovery test is a performance test that is very familiar within professional football," Helsen explains. "From research, we know that achieving the target level of 18:2 means that elite referees are able to run two kilometres of high-intensity running, if the game asks for it. Since the yo-yo assessment was first introduced in 2012, the elite referees have showed significant progress. Compared to the testing during the past winter course in Cyprus in February," he adds, "61.1% of the match officials significantly improved their yo-yo test performance (11 out of 18), 27.8% showed the same level (five out of 18), and only two showed a temporary decrease in yo-yo performance. It is clear that these match officials are now much better prepared compared to four years ago, in particular if we consider that they are four years older!" Final preparations between April and the Euro kick-off have focused on specific six-week training plans for the referees and assistant referees, while also taking into account their European and domestic match appointments. A balance between rest and training has been essential at the business end of the season with its domestic finals and championship deciders. During this time, Helsen and his team have also been able to discuss and hear about the referees' needs via a web-based platform where the officials enter their training information, match appointments, and, eventually, any minor or major issue that may have an impact on their training regime. Continuous monitoring of the top referees started four years ago. This means that on a day-to-day basis, Helsen and his colleagues know how many hours of training the officials do, how many matches they referee in a month and what they do in terms of travelling. Tips on fluid intake and nutrition are also crucial elements in helping the referees maintain fitness and achieve maximum performance, and look the part on the pitch. Consequently, the results over the past four years since Euro 2012, when Helsen's team began specific measurements of body composition, have been impressive, with referees' body fat levels decreasing considerably. It is true now that referees look as sleek and fit as the players they are managing. "We have seen a reduction in body fat among the referees from an average of 16.7% to only 13.5% four years later," Helsen reflects. "We have given them valuable advice with respect to nutrition and fluid intake, and it is clear that they have progressed significantly." UEFA is delighted that its referees display such a professional attitude. "It is unbelievable that people who are no longer so young have worked so hard to improve their physical shape over recent years," says UEFA's chief refereeing officer Pierlugi Collina. "We are happy and proud that our top referees are so committed to keeping fit".
- Werner Helsen: They face the same problems as the players. The top players who will be involved in the European Championship also play the final stages in the European club competitions and in their domestic leagues, and it is exactly the same for the referees. Maybe it is even a bigger problem for referees, because the average age of referees and assistant referees is 40. We have a huge range, with some referees being quite young, 33 for example, and some are 45-plus. This is definitely something we need to deal with, because with increasing age, there is a need for more recovery.
- UEFA.org: After the season, when match officials would normally rest and recover, they are required to produce top performances and be at maximum fitness for the EURO. Can that be difficult for a referee?
- Helsen: They need to be fit, but for such an important championship, it is also important to be fresh. In that respect, an appropriate balance between training and rest is crucial, particular towards the end of the season. And doing things other than the usual training regimes they do is also a way to keep them not only mentally fit, but also fresh. Towards the end of the six-week schedule, we have built in some days where the training volume is less and the intensity is less, just to bring them back to [us] in top fit condition.
- UEFA.org: How has your approach as a fitness expert with your team changed over the years?
- Helsen: As a sports scientist, we always look for improved ways to support our referees. It is like any coach, who thinks every day about what he can do better. One of the aspects we have changed recently is injury prevention. The level of fitness of these referees has increased over the last 10-15 years – on the one hand, they need to train very intensively to deal with the match demands, but on the other hand, they can't do too much.
- UEFA.org: Increased attention has been given to assistant referees, and they have their own specific fitness training. Why was this considered necessary?
- Helsen: It is clear now that the speed of the game has changed dramatically, not only for the referees. The speed that assistant referees need to produce is even higher than for referees. So sprinting has become much more important for them, because the high-speed running of the players and the sprints they perform has increased significantly in the last seven years. The number of high-speed runs has increased by 50 percent, and the number of sprints by 80 percent over [this period]. With respect to distance, the high-intensity running distance increased by 30%, and the sprint distance by 35%. And, of course, assistant referees need to develop their skills in line with what the match expects.
- UEFA.org: Is there a limit to how far a human being can go in terms of fitness? Do you sometimes think that the game cannot get any quicker?
- Helsen: It is a question of where the limits are of the human system. When I receive the referee files from matches, and look at their heartbeats and distance covered in the high-speed zones, and I compare it with the sheets that I receive from UEFA with the high-speed running of the players, the referee is often doing similar amounts of high-speed running (and sometimes more) compared to players who are 15 to 20 years younger. The referees' high-speed running, at their age, is really very impressive.
- UEFA.org: At UEFA Euro 2016, matches may take place in high temperatures, 35 degrees or above. How do you prepare a referee for taking charge of a match in warm weather conditions?
- Helsen: Depending on the time of the day, [such conditions] can have a major impact. The big question is how we take care of (preventive) hydration. We pay very close attention to this in the days before a game. Then, during the game, it is actually the role of the fourth official to make sure that the referee team - right from the start of the warm-up – stays hydrated until the very end of the match.
- UEFA.org: When you look at modern referees, you must be very proud to think that you have made this contribution to where they are now in terms of fitness.
- Helsen: Well, I started working for UEFA in 1999, and my first EURO was in 2000 in Belgium and the Netherlands, so this is my fifth European Championship. When I see these referees - and I am not talking about the younger referees, but the more experienced ones - and the physical image they provide – I have so much respect for what [they] do physically at their age. There is definitely major respect for them.