Most early mornings at Belconnen Basketball Stadium there’s nothing but silence. Maybe the odd creak of the old building, but no bouncing balls to be heard or shoe squeaks on the hardwood. Just the red digital clock’s reflection shimmering back up off the dark and empty court.
Tuesdays at 6:30am, that all changes. Michelle Cosier flicks on the Court 1 light switches and still-sleepy bodies shuffle through the stadium’s front doors.
Since coming on as Basketball ACT’s Referees and Officials Coordinator 16 months ago, Cosier has made multiple positive changes. The latest is introducing early morning cardio sessions for her dedicated group of referees.
Depending on the week, five to 10 of our top tier and up-and-coming officials run sprints, toss medicine balls, and test their fitness as the sun is still waking up. The chatter grows louder as the early morning workouts continue.
“We’re trying to really have the group connect together,” Cosier tells me, still slightly out of breath from a set of sprints. “We have twenty-eight referees on the senior panel and we’re trying to make it as professional as we can and change the culture, so the next generation of kids that come through, we’ve set the platform for those guys.”
After 15 years playing in the WNBL, Cosier understands the similarities and differences between both sides of the whistle.
“It’s always hard as an official to come together and work together as a team,” she says, comparing it to multiple team trainings she participated in each week as a player. “We’re trying to build that environment and culture here at Basketball ACT.”
While cardio drills are often used to build team chemistry for players, it’s no different during these Tuesday referee sessions – but just like for players, fitness has a strong say in the end performance.
“We’re refereeing a lot of SEABL athletes out there, so we need to be fit to keep up with them,” says one of Canberra’s up-and-coming talents, Mitchell Hudson. “Obviously, players get subs and we don’t,” he adds with a laugh.
As a referee that added fitness can be the difference between beating players down the court, and lagging one step out of position. Hudson tells me that single step makes a world of difference when you’re the one in stripes with a whistle.
“We’re taught to referee the defence,” he says. “So you need to be able to see the gap between the offensive player and the defensive player, so we can adjudicate who does something illegal. If we don’t have that gap, we just see numbers, so whoever’s in front can get away with blue murder.”
To measure referee fitness, the classic “Beep Test” has started to be replaced by “Yoyo Tests” – a set of sprints spaced out by short breaks to replicate the stop and start nature of basketball. Another change is an emphasis on referees maintaining an athletic physique if they hope to officiate at the higher levels.
Hudson sums it up quite simply.
“If you don’t get fit, you get injured, you get tired during games, you lapse, and you make big errors that could cost teams games.”
Avoiding those mental lapses are one of the challenges Cosier says she is adjusting to.
“As a player you can rest on defence or when you sit on the bench,” she says. “That’s been my biggest challenge, refereeing in a game for forty minutes and staying focussed. If you lapse and just take a little break, you miss something.”
In between exercises, the Tuesday morning referees chat, laugh, and encourage each other to push through fatigue. It’s this kind of encouragement and connections that help keep teams of officials focussed when things get heated on the court.
“We want everybody else to know we’re serious about it,” says Cosier. “We’re doing the extra hard work, we’re in the room doing referee education, we’re doing exams, and we’re trying to prepare the best we can. We have to do that because players are out there shooting and doing individual workouts. They’re trying to make themselves better, so we’re trying to do all these things now too.”
“Obviously, everyone would love to go to FIBA level,” says Hudson, referring to officiating international hoops such as the Olympics and World Championships.
He says that here in Canberra, our officials are fortunate that the pathway is set up for those willing to put in the work. Hudson is an example of this, starting on Saturday afternoons as a 15-year-old reffing juniors, then working his way up to Friday night basketball, regional representative basketball, and then receiving invitations to officials at Australian Junior Championships programs.
Now 21, the next milestone on Hudson’s radar is SEABL.
“For me, the next step is to get onto the SEABL panel, and then from there you go WNBL, NBL, then FIBA,” says Hudson. “It’s a long way away, but hopefully in the end I’ll get there with lots of hard work.”