World Cup Referee Fitness Preparation

By Sonia Denoncourt


How important is it to have a specific training for referees and assistant referees? How does a top referee get ready for a World Cup?

Over the years, there has been an increased emphasis on fitness preparation for referees. For almost 20 years, if a referee had failed a fitness test prior to a FIFA competition, she or he was automatically removed from the selected group and sent home. This was difficult to manage and we had lost several experienced referees who had missed out by a fraction of a second in some competitions. So, when we say that every second counts, we mean it literally. 

To make matters worse, tracing back to a decade prior to a men’s FIFA competition, if one of the referees or assistant referees failed the fitness test, the entire team of three would be sent home and completely miss their chance to fulfill their ultimate dream. Imagine the burden placed on your colleague, having to completely rely on someone else’s performance. For over a decade when I was in charge, I refused to have the same system for women and instead would respect the individual physical status by sending home only the one who had failed the fitness test. This time, I had taken a diplomatic approach; respecting everyone for their preparation, effort and fitness abilities. Thankfully, the men have now changed their approach for the benefit of the game.

The fitness requirements are a bit harder for the men, so the women wanting to referee a mens’ match must comply with the demands of the men’s fitness test. Fortunately,  more women are capable to do so and therefore are gaining more opportunities to referee these matches. The motivation is there, and more are wanting to accomplish these goals. 

In order to succeed at the top level, each referee must take a serious look at their fitness level. Everyone is different and may battle with various aspects of their current physical composition, this could include weight problems, muscle composition, strength, injury concerns, health issues, etc… At the highest level, the referees are constantly tested physically and must stay fit all-year round. There is no off-season anymore.

The principles of fitness preparation have always been the same and officials must be all-round fit. They are athletes.

Specific fitness skills for referees (R):

  • In a typical match, referees are running more frontwards than AR
  • Covering a distance from 10-15 km during a match
  • Using more backwards running than AR
  • More acceleration, deceleration and various movement including sprinting and change of direction 
  • Rarely using sideways running
  • Mobility, agility, coordination and control of the body is necessary to avoid being hit by the ball, to avoid being in the way of players, etc

Specific fitness skills for assistant referees (AR):

  • Speed and sprinting
  • Required sprinting for AR is shortened, varies depending on the game
  • Quick changing of directions from sideways to frontwards is required
  • Often sideways running (facing the field)
  • Covering a distance between 6-9 km (4-6 Miles) in a match

For the last 10 years or so, a range of technology has become readily available to assist in the monitoring of a referees’ fitness. For this World Cup, coaches can use the communication platform to give feedback and personalized training. Referees must report on their training regularly. With great technology in the likes of RefLIVE’s smartwatch app, cheating became very difficult. There is also a natural competition between the ladies. They challenge and push each-other to achieve their best. The World Cup is the ultimate competition, so all referees & assistant referees want to peak at the right time.

After a long wait of almost 4 years preparation, the competition finally arrives. Prior to the tournament, the physical training becomes even more precise, and all is planned around game day. For example, three days before a game, the training is mainly based on endurance. Two days before the game, it is on the basis of speed, agility and high intensity. One day before the game it is game preparation, low intensity workout & warm-up & stretching. Then GAME DAY! The next day is recovery time. The second and third day after is also specific training. It’s clearly a cycle around the game, which is where the performance matters the most.

Today, the game is faster, the players are at their fittest, and the referees are too! Limits are pushed more than ever.

Sonia Denoncourt is a former FIFA level referee, achieving some incredible accomplishments including 3 FIFA Women’s World Cups and 2 Olympic Games. She now works with a range of referees and leagues to focus on education and development. You can follow her updates on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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