The first step to an upgrade most certainly involves a fitness test. Sunday spelled my first-go for this year and it wasn’t the easiest experience despite months of training and with “youth” (as the older referees say) on my side. This was the Cooper fitness test.
I had grabbed some quick bites to eat on the way to the test to get the last-minute carbohydrates and to make sure I wouldn’t collapse that morning! Cream cheese bagel and a donut. I left with just enough time to make it to the test by my usual and undoubtedly favourite means, public transit. I did end up having to hike a fair distance across YU campus to get to the Track and Field Centre for the test and I made it there with 8 minutes to spare before check-in time ended.
I have to say that, overall, it was quite the nerve-wracking experience. Not because of the actual test but rather having to survive the grueling wait and watching the seriousness of our colleagues going through the routine. Somehow this was far worse than running the actual test as nerves began for me and few colleagues from my group. Butterflies in the stomach of just wanting to do the routines and get through it already! This feeling was something new.
Having checked in and met familiar faces from the refereeing brethren and high-level people in refereeing, we were briefed on the activities of the upcoming test and the overall scheme of things. We were all wearing umbro bibs colour-coded with the group we were in and with an A4 sheet pinned on labeling us for the benefit of the supervisors and with information for our own benefit. My group was in yellow and we got brand-new bibs!
I’ve never been through as complete a warm-up as one I experienced in the pre-test with the senior referees guiding us. A lot of thanks goes out to them in ensuring we were as less prone to muscle-injury as possible as all the participants were certain our muscles were warm and ready to go before the test. I’m certainly going to remember most of the warm-up for my pre-match routine. Everyone was sweating by the end of it.
After a short rest and some static stretching, we worked our way to the mark of the sprint lines where nerves were definitely present. In the past, I had no problem meeting the required Regional standard (which I needed today) as I often surpassed the Provincial standard. Really what I was trying to figure out was whether the sprint should be given 100% or not in the grand scheme of all the fitness testing. The opportunity to ask passed and I decided I would give it my all because as opposed to meeting the Regional standard, my own personal goals were to beat my times from last year to prove that my fitness level had improved. I feel this is often misunderstood by senior referees as a method of showing off/outshining the less-fit referees. Really, I would not change a thing if I did the test on my own. An interesting perspective was brought about by Graham Poll in his book ‘Seeing Red’ that I might be able to partially relate to below.
It was at Hornchurch, in Essex. It was the Isthimian League fitness test. We had to complete a set number of laps around an athletics track in a prescribed time. It required the refs to average two minutes a lap, and, as they say these days, it was a ‘big ask’ for blokes with big, erm, reputations.
But because I was young, it was not difficult for me. I could quite comfortably do three laps in four and a half minutes. And so, when I put in a couple of quick circuits at the start to break the back of the task, I lapped some of the older refs. After passing them, I span around, slowed down and ran backwards in front of them. It seemed a natural thing to do. I was confident that I would pass the test but some of them were struggling, so I started saying, ‘Come on. You can do it.’ That sort of thing.
They were not impressed. Between gasps of breath, they told me to eff of. So I joked and took the mickey a bit. I thought I was helping; I was not doing it to show off. But to onlookers and to some of the refs involved, I must have seemed like a swaggering braggart. I must have appeared an arrogant sod – but at least I was a fit sod!
I did meet my match or rather superior with another young referee in the sprints! We got along rather well. See! Refereeing is a great way to meet people. We alternated the test with 50 metres, 200, 50, 200 and the first 50 metre sprint went well. The first 200 metre sprint was rather daunting. I was wearing the ‘chest label’ (as I like to call it) with “B5” so I was placed in the first group on the outer-most track of the 200 metre athletic track. This posed a slightly daunting prospect as the sprint ahead was on a slope useful to sprinters in full stride trying to make a turn but not much to someone starting a sprint to turn immediately. The mental “advantage” was that I was able to start several yards ahead of all the other participants which gave the impression I had to run less. Was that the case? Not at all. It was the exact same distance but a mental factor nonetheless. The sprints kicked off and I dug in my heels to get as far as I could as fast as I could remembering last year’s 28 seconds as the target and I didn’t see any of the other participants other than my friend who overtook me 3/4s through the track until the end. It was over quite fast but I was losing steam having given it 100%. This was the first sign of a decline in performance.
The second 50 metre went well and I knew I couldn’t let my foot off the gas pedal as I didn’t really know where the right distance was so with reduced energy, I attempted to complete it.
The difference-maker was the final 200 metres. I had blown all my steam in the sprint barely 100 metres in and I had pulled out to a brisk run at that point. My friend passed me at that point which helped in gauging where I needed to be to pass. This sprint felt long. Much much longer. I started to get afraid on the final stretch as I couldn’t imagine where the time had reached. The finish line was in sight about five metres away so I leaned forward to crack the line early (as you see those Olympic runners do). Not saying I am one of those runners but I needed to trip the timer as fast as I could. It was an expensive trip because I leaned far too forward and slowly lost my balance. It felt as though in slow-motion but I was gradually falling forwards and I could hear someone say “Oh oh” in the background knowing what was coming. I tried to drive forward but it was too late and the end of the track was coming pretty fast. I had no clue how close it was since I could only see the ground directly below me so I took the fall on my forearms. It wouldn’t have done for me to have fallen on my knees as that would certainly have left a sticky note reminder for the impending 12-minute run! A few shallow grazes, bruises and a flop over left me on the ground facing directly at the ceiling. I couldn’t say much as I was gasping for air after the run but I managed to say that I was all right after the dramatic fall. I was hauled up by somebody (I didn’t have all my wits at that point to remember) not too long later and there were a few laughs from onlookers (I’m sure it must have been entertaining). It turned out that my head leaning forward saved me four milli-seconds within the Provincial standard for sprints. The fall was definitely worth it after that!
After sitting down to rest on a bench and doing what-not to recuperate energy for the dreaded 12-minute run, it was a rather restless affair as the body wanted a complete rest but we were advised to keep moving to keep our muscles warm. That didn’t sit too well with some of our consciences. In what felt like mere minutes and joking offers to the supervisors for extensions on the rest periods, we were all lined up ready for the 12-minute Cooper test. This was the real Cooper test as the sprints are supplementary and the run we were about to do requires a different reserve of energy.
My previous training had all been on the treadmill so I knew what I was to get was a different story on the athletic track. The run started off. Was I 100% ready? I would have loved an extra five minutes but don’t think I could really have asked a player that if it happened during the game! The run was long and drawn out and the encouragement from the supervisors and colleagues on the side definitely brought a smile to my face on each lap as I waved a thumbs up each time. The times we clocked on each lap were dictated out to us as we passed so we could gauge our progress and adjust speed accordingly. Really I lost count of the number of laps and was hoping I was keeping it to a little faster than a lap per minute. Two minutes to go and I picked up the pace as the supervisor said I had only one lap to complete. One lap later and there was 1 minute and 10 seconds to end. I had reached 2200 metres but it was far from over because even though I had met what I needed for the test, my personal goals were a long way off. I pushed it from first to fourth gear to a full brisk run to overtake quite a few people to cover as much distance as I could in the timeframe and eventually pushing it to a sprint. The final whistle sounded and I was well over a lap past what I needed but I knew I could have gone for another 30 seconds. It didn’t really matter at that point as the lead-feeling after the 12 minutes kicked in and I paced up and down the track (literally since I stopped at the incline) to cool down as the supervisors came around to mark our distances.
Soon enough we were all congratulating each other on passing and we went over to see the results of our individual tests. I was rather disappointed to see I had missed all my personal goals and that all my sprints and run were in worse condition last year! It left me wondering whether I had really lost the ability or if the timing/measurement was really that different between the two times I tried it. I knew I was caught out regardless with the shorter recovery times.
High Intensity Interval Test
The post-fitness test cool-down was drawn out and I hung around for quite sometime to watch the senior referees engage in the FIFA High Intensity fitness test. It was certainly interesting to see the camera gates being set up and being activated as the runner moved through it and clock the time as they passed the second at the end of the track. A few referees started their practice interval test around the track and since I was back to normal (40 minutes had passed), I accepted their invitation after the first lap to join them to see how this test really was. I joined at Lap 2 so I missed out on the start and definitely on the six sprints that were to be done so a big part of the test was missing when I ran it but I was able to complete the portions at the required pace. My muscles began to tighten near Lap 16 but recovery after the 20 laps was fairly quick. An interesting prospect for the formal test to come next Sunday. The lesson I learnt, recovery recovery recovery. Need to recover quickly! I was punished for it and next time, I need to be aware and prepared.
Boy do I feel those muscles aching now. Makes me wish I had done more post-test stretching. The weariness in the muscles turned to stiffness overnight not to mention the grazes. I’m glad I don’t do weekday games and I have the rest of the week to recover!
Some videos on fitness testing on UEFA’s website: