What’s that ref meant to be doing anyway?!

Whatever the game we watch and whatever the result, what we can be certain of is that we will hear on television, in the newspaper or from the coaches themselves about the performance of the referee in that game. The position of referee must be, in some ways at least, the most stressful position on the field in rugby, soccer, gaelic football and rugby. The concentration levels, attention to detail, decision making and the communication skills needed by a referee are enormous. The referees  interpretations of the rules can alter how teams can play, and their decisions can change the outcome of a game. It is essential that they have these mental skills, and are free to be neutral and as pressure-free as possible in order to make the best decisions on the field.

Something which has concerned me for a number of years now is the role many former professionals and coaches believe the referee should play. When we hear of coaches asking for the referee to “let the game flow”, or that the referee “ruined the game as a spectacle”, I believe we are in very difficult and dangerous territory. This attitude has crept into many sports, and I believe it is detrimental to each sport. Just yesterday I watched the England v New Zealand rugby league test on BBC. Jon Wilkin and Jamie Peacock at half-time both criticised the match referee for awarding 9 penalties in the first half for offences by both sides at slowing down the play of the ball. Both sides had clearly set out to slow the tempo of the opposition’s attack by being slow at ruck time. The half-time scoreline of 2-2 (one penalty each) was testiment to the intent of both sides to prevent tries and preventing the opponent to build attacks where their defence wouldn’t have time to be organised. Wilkin and Peacock made the point that the game as a spectacle was badly damaged by the referees decisions to award penalties. This sentiment can be heard all the time in gaelic football and hurling particularly, where a game full of fouling and negative tactics is generally blamed on the referee in question.

One could say that the job of a referee is to enforce the rules of the game and to impose sanctions on individuals who breach these rules. I think that would be a fair definition of a referee in any of the sports I’ve named. The rules of the game are key. I would sincerely doubt if the rulebooks for any of the sports from rugby to soccer to GAA state anywhere that a responsibility of a referee is to ensure that the game is entertaining to those who watch it, that there are lots of scores or lots of nice passes. The purpose of the referee in a sport is to know the rules, enforce those rules by giving frees (or cards) when appropriate, and to be neutral in applying those rules. A key point is that the referee should be neutral and enforce the rules, rather than being even. Even is not neutral or fair- you see this regularly where a team has a man sent off and the referee stops giving frees against them, or conversely where something happens and the referee tries to “even things up”. If we could have referees enforce the rules properly, everyone would know where they stand. Players would not be frustrated at having a decision go against them. We would not have conversations every Saturday and Sunday about consistency. Giving the free to one guy and not the other for the same offence. These things drive people mad.

Here’s a unique concept I’d love more people to embrace. Even to just try it out for a while, see how it feels:

The game as a spectacle is the responsibility of the players and management of each team, not the responsibility of the referee.

The players are the ones on the field who commit fouls. They are the ones who push the referee, seeing where he will draw a line. They will pull jerseys, push opponents, slow the ball down, neglect to retreat the required distance from free-kick, start rows and tactically foul where it is difficult to score from. It is the responsibility of a referee to punish all of these things when they happen without any pressure on them not to. If these fouls were punished each and every time they happen, and the appropriate sanctions taken for those who persist, teams would see very quickly that they would not be able to win through negative tactics as they’d be conceding scores and playing with fewer players on their team. When we see what we consider to be a “good referee”, it is easy to tell who he is. Not because he created a spectacle, but because he got his decisions correct almost all of the time. Guys like soccer’s Pierluigi Collina or rugby’s Andre Watson got the calls right, and didn’t bottle making difficult decisions or punishing serial offenders. Alain Rolland, Nigel Owens, Dickie Murphy, John Bannon and Pat McAneaney were also guys who just played the rules and let the game sort itself out.

The pressure levels on a referee at any level are huge. I don’t think many go out to favour one team and in general referees are neutral. But they are hampered or confused in many situations by issues which should be external to their performance. Deciding not to give a free or penalty because of it’s impact on the scoreboard, because you penalised that team 10 times already, because there have been 20 frees in ten minutes, because that player said or did something previously in the game make for a bad game. Good referees are the ones who ignore those things and give the decisions anyway. The game in general, we as supporters, coaches and players, and the respective organisations can help referees to do great jobs by taking the pressure off them to do anything other than blow the whistle when the rules say you should.

Talent Development- from New Zealand to Kilkenny

Isa Nacewa recently wrote an article about the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team before the Rugby World Cup final against Australia. Mental edge sets All Blacks apart from the rest. In the article he talks about several of the mental characteristics which distinguish the All Blacks as the world’s most dominant team. The one area which I’m going to talk about is the age at which several All Blacks finished their career. In the article, Nacewa points out that Christian Cullen played his last game for New Zealand when he was 26. Joe Rokocoko was 27, Josh Kronfeld and Dougie Howlett were 29. To many, especially here in Ireland, that sounds a little amazing. In Ireland we hold onto quality players for as long as they are fit and able. On first reading, one would imagine that the reason New Zealand were able to dispense with these players is down to the sheer numbers of excellent players their rugby system produces. For example, Josh Kronfeld was edged out of the New Zealand team by the emergence of one Richie McCaw. I believe that it is a combination of producing quality players, but even more so, the decision to dispense with players in their late 20’s rather than mid 30’s is down to an understanding of talent development by those within the All Black selection structure.

The “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) is a term which refers to the optimal learning environment for an individual. It’s a term which was developed by a Russian psychologist called Vygotsky and can be basically defined as an area of learning where a person is assisted by a teacher or peer with a higher skill set. It is usually a term used in relation to education, but it transfers very well to the development of talented sportspeople. In sports terms, it relates to a period of learning where a sportsperson develops from exposure to coaching from excellent coaches and performing alongside and against peers who are more skilled at that point in time. An understanding from those coaches and peers that the learner will make mistakes but will improve, further strengthens the benefits of placing a talented young performer in their ZPD.

What New Zealand do, as far as I’m concerned, is have a good eye for watching for players who have reached their peak. You can imagine one’s peak as a bell curve, where players are learning and developing until they reach their peak (the highest point on the bell curve). They may stay at that peak level for a period of time, maintaining their excellent standards. However, for all performers, they will eventually begin to wane and can be said to be, even slightly, past their peak. When this happens, New Zealand act. They find a developing player in that position, and usually act quickly by replacing the player who is past his peak with the younger player. At this point is the young player better than the experienced, multi-capped international? Usually no. But the key point is, he is on his way up. He will improve. He will make mistakes, learn from them, get excellent coaching and perform alongside outstanding players. The experienced guy who is just past his peak will not recover his powers and if retained, he will contribute to standards within the squad dropping. The only exceptions to the practice should really be those once or twice a generation superstar, like a McCaw or Dan Carter (or for Ireland Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell), whose potential peak is so high that they can continue to perform at an outstanding level, and their skills can continue to aid the development of others, well into their 30’s.

To summarise, New Zealand place a young player into his ZPD with a view towards creating another world class player. They know they have a guy who soon won’t be world class so they take action. A stitch in time saves nine, as the old saying goes. And here’s the key point. If they did not take this action, that young player would never reach as high an eventual peak. By not getting that top level coaching and exposure young to the kind of competitive environment that could not be created elsewhere, they would have lost vital years in their development. Their growth would be stunted. By taking early action and giving them early exposure, New Zealand are giving their young players the best possible chance to become multi-capped, world class international players.

It’s a model that’s followed by champion teams in all kinds of sports. Looking at Irish sport, I immediately think of Kilkenny. People for 15 years now have been looking at Brian Cody every year wondering why he dropped this player and that player when they were still young enough to have 3 or 4 seasons left in them. James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick was gone at 26. Willie O’Dwyer at 25. John Tennyson at 27. If you’re old enough you’ll remember the furore over the dropping of reigning All Star Charlie Carter. Kilkenny keep winning and people wonder over and over how unbelievable they are at producing top players. How they can dispense with so much talent, confident there are others coming through. Cody, to me, has an innate knowledge of ZPD. He, just like the All Blacks, can see when a guy just might not get any better. Or that a young guy has the potential to become even better. Rather than wait on the young guy to improve on his own, like so many failed coaches do, he gives them a chance, bringing them into the squad to train with top players and top coaches so that they will be outstanding when they do make that Kilkenny team. Again, like New Zealand, Cody recognises the once or twice a generation superstar player (like Henry Shefflin and JJ Delaney) and holds onto them longer, using their huge array of skills to keep standards high and aid the development of others.

You could look at other examples. Teams like Liverpool in the 70’s and 80’s, or Manchester United under Alex Ferguson seemed to have an endless stream of talent coming through. Kerry footballers in recent times have brought in guys in the same way. Quality coaching at underage level plays a huge part, as does tradition and the number of good standard young guys coming through. But an understanding of how players develop and how to increase their potential ensures the medium- and long-term success of any team. Even those who are currently not successful. It frustrates me sometimes to see teams hold onto players well past their prime and at the same time complain there is nothing coming through. Success will come if you recognise how to develop the talent. Or if you don’t know how, bring in someone who does know.