The Future of Referee Fitness

Sport business lecturer Steve Swanson, director of sport leadership at Loughborough University in London, discusses FIBA’s new physical training program for the world’s top basketball referees

Just when we think we’ve seen the best athletes of our lifetime, the world of sport repeatedly reveals new levels of ability and physical prowess. Records continue to fall, and new heights are frequently reached in a variety of mainstream and alternative sports. Beyond the sheer determination demonstrated by the athletes, other major factors in this ascension are the scientific and technological advances that carry on in the background. While we readily see the way technology impacts sport through advances in time measurementstraining gear, and tracing a ball’s trajectory (e.g. goal line technology, and line calls in tennis), behind the scenes data analytics are transforming the way that athletes, coaches, and administrators make decisions across virtually all levels of play.

As these advances generally result in stronger and faster movements by the participants, another area in need of attention is the fitness level of the referees in these competitions. For example, as basketball is generally considered to be one of the most athletic sports played, it seems that top-level basketball referees would also need to maintain a high level of physical fitness to be in position to make calls and minimize the risk of poor decision-making due to fatigue. A new study as has indeed provided support for this, finding that referees reach levels of physical intensity (e.g. heart rate) that are similar to those of the players during the course of an entire basketball game. In the interest of keeping pace with today’s highest level of basketball, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) is launching a state-of-the art training program for all referees who work during the various FIBA championships around the world.

After working with FIBA Europe and the premier basketball league in Spain (Liga ACB), sport scientist Dr Alejandro Vaquera of the University of Leon has been commissioned to run this extensive fitness program for the top international referees in the game. According to Vaquera, while basketball referees don’t need to possess all the physical abilities as the players (e.g. strength, vertical jump), these officials should be able to demonstrate similar levels of speed and endurance.

This is quite a challenge when considering the quickness and change of direction associated with fast breaks and turnovers in basketball, where the goal for referees is to be in front of the action (or at least at the level of the ball). In comparison to many other sports with multiple referees strategically placed in a more fixed position, the top basketball referees should arguably be at the top levels of fitness for all officials throughout sport. In addition, quick recovery is another key element as most top basketball referees work multiple games per week during the season.

The FIBA protocol now includes pre-competition clinics where height, weight, body fat, and body mass index are recorded and accounted for in the ongoing assessment of referee physical fitness. FIBA referees now wear monitors during all competitions to assist in game performance analysis and add to the pool of data for future research. By utilising new technology from Polar, game data is collected for each referee’s heart rate, distance covered, speed zones, and number of sprints during the games, which is then utilised to create individualised training programs for maintenance and improvement. In addition, each referee is issued a 24-hour GPS Pulsometer which provides key data points in relation to their performance during preparation stage training. As referees are generally not publically acknowledged for their endurance and physical fitness levels, FIBA’s approach highlights the commitment needed in this area to be an elite level international basketball referee. Who knows, with an increased emphasis on referee achievement at the top levels, could this track someday lead us to monitoring these individuals for performance enhancing substances like the participants? Will we someday readily consider referees to be athletes and ‘refereeing’ to be a sport itself? Only time will tell, but just like the premier athletes in the Olympics and professional sports leagues, all indications are that physical accountability will play a significant role in the future of referee evaluation.

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