Massaging the mind of referees

FEATURE: Meet the man responsible for boosting the confidence of those tasked with taking charge of the biggest EHF EURO ever

Johann Ingi Gunnarsson is focused on making sure the EHF EURO referees are mentally prepared for the challenge ahead. Photo © Uros Hocevar / Kolektiff

It is not easy being a referee.

In pressure-cooker atmospheres, they have to make crucial split-second decisions. At that exact moment they may also have to deal with a potentially frustrated team of players, an angry coach and a crowd howling in disapproval.

You also have to remember these men and women, the best of which will take the whistle at matches at EHF EURO 2020, are also human beings, people who have to deal with the pressures of everyday life just like anybody else.

Dealing with the demands of elite level handball is more than just knowing the rules. A cool, calm, collected and confident referee is vital when those around them are losing their heads.

And that is where Icelander Johann Ingi Gunnarsson comes in.

The former coach of German giants THW Kiel is tasked with getting inside of the minds of the referee pairs who will be on duty in Sweden, Austria and Norway over the next three weeks.

Positive mental attitude

Gunnarsson’s presentation on dealing with mental strength captivated the couples. With every new slide, mobile phones were held aloft to capture his next piece of wisdom, treasured for later, personal reading.

That is what Gunnarsson is aiming for. As a mental coach, the 65-year-old appreciates every referee is different. However, there is one common goal of his work: to help control stress levels and encourage each referee to believe in themselves.

“Confidence is massive, confidence is a muscle you can train,” says Gunnarsson. “I say it’s a muscle because it’s something you can train and you can train a mindset.

“If referees are confident they can come to the court with a positive attitude and body language. If not, the players and managers can pick up on this, understand it, see that they are not confident and use it against them. That transfers to the supporters in the crowd, and that’s when we may have a crisis.”

For Gunnarsson, who has been helping referees deal with mental pressure ahead of EHF EUROs since 2012, making the officials feel mentally prepared plays a huge role in affecting their performance on the court.

To explain that, the Icelander compared the referee pairs to a pilot and co-pilot in a cockpit, underlining the significance of working together as a team. “You are leaders – without you there would be no game,” he tells them.

Throughout the presentation, the message is clear: confident refereeing requires good, calm leadership.

“The referees are managers of the game,” continues Gunnarsson. “It’s quite good to see them as managers. We see them as leaders. And how does a good leader work? They are good communicators, they listen to people and encourage people. I take a lot of these ideas to give to referees because you can use them in your lives and helps prepare for the next game.

“I’ve known so many referees for many years, and it’s always pleasing when I get feedback from them, telling me how they have used what I have told them. That reinforces how important it is to work in these factors.”

Embracing mental coaching

The Icelander laughs when he is asked whether he feels like a proud father when watching referees cope under pressure in heated moments inside sold-out arenas.

Gunnarsson, who admits he avidly examines the refereeing performances of officials in other sports such as football and basketball, believes that mental preparation is becoming more and more prevalent in handball – and that can only be seen as a positive thing.

“Thirty years ago people who wanted to ‘talk’ about their feelings and what is going on inside their heads felt that there was something wrong with them,” he says. “Now mental preparation is as important as the physical preparation, or rule preparation.

“Now you see teams and nations are embracing mental coaching. Norway women’s team have two psychologists if they need someone to talk to.

“Now ahead of such big tournaments such as these, referees have access to as many tools to ensure they can control and manage their minds in every kind of situation,” Gunnarsson concludes.

written by Andrew Barringer / jh