When Johann Ingi Gunnarsson took over the mental preparation of the EHF EURO referees in Serbia 2012 it was only the beginning of what has become a long-term and fruitful cooperation between him and the EHF Competence Academy & Network.
In 2014 the partnership with the Icelandic specialist, who was head coach of THW Kiel in the eighties, took another step forward when he began to work with the referees not only during the tournament preparation stage, but also during the event itself, giving them encouragement and his feedback on their matches.
As there was great satisfaction with this project, both sides decided to repeat it in Poland in 2016.
Gunnarsson's feedback has nothing in common with judging and evaluating whether the referees were right or wrong in a particular game; he is helping them to make the right decisions by improving their mental toolbox.
“My observation is completely different to delegates, who are working with the rules and the game,” said Gunnarsson. “I am looking more at the behaviour: How are they working as a team, how can they communicate with the players and with the coaches, how they can calm down difficult situations, how they can encourage or instruct the players.
“The mental training is to be at your best when it counts. And it is not a one-off one-hour long meeting with me – it is a real training and a process, and I see a big improvement here.”
At the EHF EURO 2016 he has been following all the games and providing the referees with feedback, either in person or by email.
The EHF EURO 2016, which has already broken the all-time spectators record before the semi-finals, only emphasised the importance of mental preparation as the pressure on referees increases with the size of the crowd.
“When talking to referees about these games I often teach them metaphors. One, for instance, is drinking from a tea cup. T-CUP stands for ‘thinking correctly under pressure’, so they should be in a tea cup state of mind.
“Another metaphor I am using a lot says: Is the light on? Are you ready to deal with this situation, are you acting proactively? Because sometimes they are waiting one week to get a match and then the light has to be on. I always tell them it is the most important game of your life. This game is your final – it also might be the last in your life,” he explained.
“Also I am trying to work a lot with their confidence. They should expect a good performance. It is not about being lucky to be confident or being born to be confident. We all choose to be confident.
“The other idea is to control the controllable – they cannot control the behaviour of players, coaches or spectators, but they can control their own mind set.”
Gunnarsson's feedback has only indirect impact on the referee nominations. As the pool of nominated referees is changing slightly for each European Championship, there are always new people to work with. But with those he has been working in the past couple of years, he can identify steady improvement.
“For example, when it comes to their work with body language, we have to understand not only different cultures for each part of Europe, but also the specific personality of each referee.
“It is not easy to become a fantastically perfect referee, and sometimes I have to calm them down in their expectations. When they are ready to take good decisions throughout the whole game I call them ‘crazy good referees’. I could say to some referees, who I am not going to name, that they were crazy good in my feedback here. They were in the T-CUP state of mind and were crazy good throughout the game,” said Gunnarsson.
When receiving feedback each referee should be able to take criticism as an opportunity to learn and to grow.
“We are building on positive traits and focusing on their strengths. [When] trying to find what's wrong with people, it took psychology over one hundred years to turn towards positive sides, and that is also our approach.
“We also analyse what's in the coaches' heads and how a clever coach is also going to take a chance. They were surprised to learn that. As I have been on both sides I know that everyone is trying to go as far as they can. It's part of the game.”