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NWSL officials primed for new campaign following preseason camp

The 2016 NWSL season kicks off this weekend, and the officials are fully prepared for the new campaign following the preseason camp in Sawgrass, Florida.

We caught up with a number of those in attendance to reflect on the three-day programme and to gather their thoughts ahead of the season.

The staff

Referee instructors Kim Oberle and Ali Saheli both played their part in developing the curriculum, and led sessions both on and off the field during March’s camp.

Was anything new introduced to this year’s camp?

KO: A new aspect of camp is that we had funding to fly in key assistant referees so that the referees and ARs could work in teams during practical skills sessions. This is a fantastic addition and benefit to everyone – referees, assistant referees and the league as a whole.

Also new to the training camp this year were sessions presented by PRO Sports Scientist Matt Hawkey and PRO Nutritionist Gena Wollenberg, which focused on athlete nutrition, physical training and recovery and body composition – education all top-level referees need to continue to perform physically and mentally for the duration of the season.

AS: We also introduced the referees to the new communication devices. PRO tooled the referees with these devices during the pre-season camp.  Each referee was fitted to the devices/ear pieces and they practiced using them during our field sessions.

Were there set targets you wanted the officials to get out of the camp?

KO: We definitely had learning outcomes attached to our weekend agenda. The weekend was centered around training of the caliber one might expect of a first division professional league, for example, practical skills sessions designed to enhance referee/AR communication skills using referee communication systems, concentration and focus for ARs and positioning with emphasis on angle of view and proximity for referees.

Saturday afternoon was a collaborative video review session with referees and ARs working together to analyze critical match situations with specific focus on recognizing the severity of fouls, and Sunday morning was spent on offside interpretations and leadership.

Did you achieve those goals, and are you looking forward to seeing the officials apply what they’ve learned in the new season?

KO: I think we all agreed that the weekend went well, and the feedback from the referees during the weekend was that they felt engaged and that the skills they were learning were going to elevate their performances. Certainly the weekend went smoothly and we hit our target outcomes for the weekend, educationally speaking.

We are excited to see the officials step on the pitch and apply what they’ve learned. I think we’ve got a very strong, capable and confident group of referees this season and we expect high-level performances based on the skill sets they’ve demonstrated thus far and their dedication to the training it takes to be professional referees.

AS: It was very important to place emphasis on the culture of professional refereeing and instill the proper habits so the referees start the season more prepared. One of the most important aspects and focus of the staff is referee improvement and recruitment.  This is a never-ending job that has direct correlation with the success of the league.

I am proud to play my part with this wonderful organization and witness the growth of each and every one of the referees participating in this league. Referees have to have the skills, training and understanding on how to protect the game.

Every single player is an important asset and needs to treated with care and understanding.  The more we help and tool the referees, the better we can protect the players and the teams, the assets of this beautiful game. Here is to great success for the upcoming season.

The officials

Referees Levi Rippy, Amber O’Connor and Christina Unkel were just three of the many officials at camp. Rippy returned for his second preseason, while rookie O’Connor was getting her first taste of the experience.

Unkel has recently been out of the game to give birth to her baby daughter, and the FIFA official has set her sights on a return to action sooner rather than later.

Levi Rippy

What did the camp involve?

Camp involved both outdoor field sessions and indoor classroom sessions. On the pitch we focused on increased effectiveness with decisions near the penalty area. This involved both dynamic positioning training as well as increased communication between the referee and assistant.

The drills start simply and add layers of complexity until they are simulating actual game situations. These situations included the use of the communication system and the inclusion of a youth soccer team. The game-like structure allows our teams to work through many repetitions on the field. The intent is that this will lead to increased accuracy of decisions around the penalty area.

The classroom sessions utilized both game film analysis and break-out group discussions. We are presented with a large topic, break out into our groups to discuss how we process a decision, then the groups return and we discuss our analysis. The emphasis is not only on achieving consistent and accurate decisions, but also in developing the skills to articulate our decision making process.

What are the benefits of these camps, what was different this year, and what did you learn?

The preseason camps serve a great opportunity to bring the referees together in a positive environment, and develop greater awareness to how we can improve and better serve the game.

At camp we address the points of emphasis for the upcoming season, identify opportunities for us to develop better consistency between officials, and deepen our relationships with our fellow officials. It is important to foster these relationships and build trust between team members. It helps us during the season to more effectively officiate as a cohesive referee team and better administer the game.

The major difference this year was an increased emphasis on the use of radio communication technology. This year the referee teams will be equipped with communication systems and camp focused on building the necessary skills to optimize this new piece of technology.

Personally for me, I learned what types of specific language work best on the communication system. As a group, we worked together to develop some best practices that should set us up for success at the start of the season. I also learned some places where I can improve my view of a decision through using a burst of speed to transition from one side of the penalty area to another.

Amber O’Connor

How did you find your first NWSL preseason camp, and was it what you were expecting?

Being a rookie, I had no idea what to expect at the preseason camp. I knew we would be covering higher level topics and points of emphasis for the 2016 season. What I didn’t expect, and what I enjoyed the most, is the helpfulness of the staff.

A lot of referee events are intimidating and mistakes get highlighted, but the staff at the NWSL preseason camp wanted us to make mistakes so we could learn from them before the season. In that environment, no question was a stupid question. I’m glad I was able to relax and feel comfortable in the camp, where most others I feel unable to open up.

What did you learn from the camp, from working with the other officials? How much are you looking forward to the new season, and applying what you’ve learned into your game?

I was lucky enough to have a FIFA assistant referee in my crew for the field session, which helped immensely. I was able to ask questions to and get advice from the best in the game. This season will challenge me, as does every new level of game I referee, but I feel that my preparations from the preseason camp will help me to succeed on the field.

The NWSL is going to be a lot faster than what I’m used to, but being around other officials with the ability to quickly make critical decisions will help my advancements as a referee.

What are your targets for the season?

My hope for this season is to have this level of competition eventually slow down for me – when I feel like I’m moving faster than the game, that is when my personal confidence grows. I am enjoying the new challenges that the NWSL will bring, and my hopes are that this season prepares me for the next challenges I may face.

Christina Unkel

How did you find the preseason camp this year? You’ve got plenty of experience from FIFA assignments, do you feel there is still plenty to learn, and do these camps continue to help you with that?

Preseason camp this year embodied the amazing growth and commitment in the referee identification and training PRO and USSF have dedicated themselves to over the past years.

Personally I did not know more than a handful of the attendees and it was great to see these new identified individuals coming into a professional camp with a high level of professionalism and an astute understanding of the NWSL league and FIFA educational materials.

There is always room to learn and grow as a referee. Camps assist with reinforcing the interpretation and uniform, consistent application of the FIFA Laws of the Game as well with the specific characteristics and considerations in the NWSL. These camps keep one relevant.

Are you encouraged by what you saw from the rookies and less experienced officials at camp? 

Encouraged is an understatement. Inspired and motivated by the ‘rookies’ is how I would phrase it. For them to ask questions and learn to ‘think for themselves’ and embrace roles on the team and learn when and how to lead is exactly what you want your team members to be able to do in the heat of the match.

Sandra Serafini, Women’s Referee Manager, said: “A big thank you to all those who played their part – the staff, officials and the NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush, who came down and spoke at the camp, and Julie Tobin from OSI who continue to be a generous sponsor of the NWSL officials. Preseason was a huge success.

“We very much appreciate the extra investment in the travel budget this season from NWSL and U.S. Soccer, enabling us to have the most-qualified officials available to us in the league at all times. The continued support of Peter Walton and PRO to expand the camp to include more officials and our expert staff, as well as invest in technology, especially with the referee communication systems, is crucial to our mission statement of providing world-class officials to all professional leagues within North America.

“I’m fully confident in this roster for the new season, with everyone’s continued enthusiasm and hard work I know they can successfully elevate NWSL and continue to further its reputation as the top league in women’s soccer.”

The NWSL season begins on April 16, and you can view the Week 1 appointments by clicking here.

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