23 December 2022

How UEFA ensured Women’s EURO 2022 referees were ‘fit, fresh and match ready’

Continuous monitoring, a focus on anticipated match demands and sleep tracking all played a part in helping match officials at Women’s EURO 2022 arrive ‘fit, fresh and physically prepared’, says Dr. Werner Helsen, who led the preparation of UEFA match officials for the tournament in England between 6-31 July 2022. 

“Continuous monitoring was the key,” explains Helsen, a member of the UEFA Fitness4Football advisory group who has been involved in the physical preparation of UEFA referees since 2009.

“UEFA agreed to not organise a formal fitness test just before the start of the tournament, as we usually do. Instead, we decided to monitor the physical work of the match officials over the short and long-term. In that way, we could make sure that each individual would be ready for the tournament rather than facing the pressure of a formal fitness test on any given day.” 

Focusing on the physical performance of each match official over a longer period of time allowed Helsen and his team to plan for individual differences. “Each EURO tournament comes at the end of a national championship, but also a Women’s Champions League competition which many of the officials were involved in. 

“So, our idea was to provide a six-week pitch-based training plan. These plans were differentiated between five different scenarios depending on the end of the season and the planning of a short break for each official. It was also different for referees, assistant referees, and VARs.” 

“We carefully balanced rest and training because, just like the players, the referees need to be fit and fresh and be physically prepared to deal with the match demands. They also needed to be mentally fresh and to not to have paid the consequences of too much training. This all had to be balanced.” 

Focus on anticipated demands

 During on-pitch preparation, match officials were exposed to ‘worst case’ scenarios of high-speed running in order to be ready for the toughest aspects of match performance, explains Helsen. “We put a lot of focus on the anticipated demands of the game and, in particular, high intensity running and what we call the ‘worst case’ scenarios. These are the peak five, ten or fifteen minutes of very intensive action in the game.” 

‘Match simulation sessions’ helped match officials who hadn’t refereed for a number of weeks to fully prepare for the demands of the game. “For some referees, there was four or five weeks between the last game they refereed and the first match appointment in the tournament. 

“Therefore, during the preceding weekends, we organised match simulation sessions, lasting about one hour, where all the typical things that happened in the match were simulated, including the typical changes in speed and direction. This was a really good way to build up to the match.” 

Match simulation involved ‘running to make a decision’ rather than running for the sake of it, explains Helsen. “Referees need to be at the right place at the right time, in the right moment. So, instead of setting up sessions to run and run, we organised training sessions where referees run to take game-like decisions that were presented on the pitch on a big screen with high-definition footage. It is a great example of integrated training where perception and decision-making training go hand in hand with demanding physical efforts.”

“So, we might have had high-intensity running for 150 metres, followed by the need to take a technical and disciplinary decision. It was an approach that was much appreciated by the referees because that is exactly what they do in the game: they run to take decisions. In a very similar way, we also organised it for the assistant referees with the typical high-intensity running on the side-line followed by video clips of offside incidents.” 

Since the conclusion of the tournament, analysis has shown that the match demands of referees at Women’s EURO 2022 were similar to that of a ‘box-to-box’ central midfield player. 

“Interestingly, the match demands imposed on referees in terms of high-intensity running (2063m), very highintensity running (411m), and sprinting (43m), meant the referee’s profile was mostly in line with that of a central midfielder, for example a box-to-box player, who covered the following distances: 2427m, 432m, 95m.” 

Nutrition and sleep tracking 

Supporting the on-pitch physical preparation for match officials was a focus on nutrition and sleep tracking, explains Helsen. “In the past, we were primarily focused on training quality, and we were providing some advice to match officials on how to sleep and what to drink.

“But for the very first time at this tournament, we had the opportunity to work together with the GSSI [Gatorade Sports Science institute] to put a plan in place to support the officials.”

Questionnaires on hydration, nutrition, sleep and the menstrual cycle were distributed to officials with the results helping to shape a number of educational webinars delivered ahead of the pre-tournament training camp. Infographics with practical advice and a sports nutrition booklet for female match officials were also produced. When the officials met up in person there was further personalised support for nutrition and hydration.

“During the preparatory training camp in Istanbul, we worked with patches that were attached to the arm of the official to check the dehydration status before we started the training session.

“After the high-intensity sessions it was clear that individually the dehydration status of each official was very different and some of them quite dehydrated. It meant the referees were much more aware of the need for proper drinking and eating to help recovery.

“To help this, we installed recovery stations during the meal rooms where they could see what types of food and drinks, they should be consuming to aid recovery. That was very valuable. There were also bottles with specific supplements, depending on the level of training they had done. It was very, very beneficial to individualise the eating and drinking.” 

Sleep analysis

Match officials at Women’s EURO 2022 were also given the option of sleep tracking. “Referees are very dedicated, willing to improve and learn new things,” says Helsen. “We offered the opportunity to get involved with sleep tracking, it was not mandatory at all. We had 11 sleep trackers and immediately we had 11 referees who wanted to get involved. We found out that sleep on matchday after the game was compromised. It meant we always gave an active recovery session on matchday plus one and a full rest day on matchday plus two because it was clear from sleep quality that the officials needed 48 hours before they could practise again in a proper way.”

“Some of the officials were not aware of the importance of sleep and how their sleep quality was jeopardised by the game, kick-off time, travel, sleeping in different hotels and the arousal of matchday. So, again, they benefited a lot from that.” 

“Finally, we are very pleased that the focus on training, nutrition and sleep did not come to an end after EURO 2022 but is now being continued for the UEFA Women’s Champions League matches.”

*Dr. Werner Helsen worked with Nathalie Qaqaya from the UEFA Refereeing Services unit and Dr. Ian Rollo and Caroline Tarnowski from GSSI on this project.  

This article was originally published in the UEFA Fitness4Football community.

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