Exclusive Nick Heckford Interview

We have an exclusive interview with referee, Nick Heckford who dissects into the experience of his first ever FIVB Volleyball Women’s Championship in Italy, September, 2014 . This was a big honour for Nick who is the first ever English referee to appear at the prestigious tournament.

Nick completed his Grade 4 refereeing course in 2001 and has refereed in over 130 international matches and 300 national league and cup game ever since. Nick’s hard work and dedication for refereeing has rewarded him with the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and even Peru. His honours include; 2009 CEV Youth European Championships, 2011 - 2014 CEV Champions League 2011, FIVB Women's Junior World Championships , 2011 CEV Men's European Championship Finals, 2013 CEV Men's European Championship,  2014 FIVB World League and the 2014 CEV Men's European League.

Q: What made this event special for you?

A: It all starts from the moment you receive the email from the FIVB Sports Events department with the nomination.  It means that you have been selected from the hundreds of other referees across the world that also dream of getting this appointment.  The anticipation and build up especially in the media around the event highlight the profile of the tournament and raise the expectation.  Once arrived you are treated as a very important part of the event and the organisers ensure you have everything you need to be able to focus on the volleyball.  But for the event itself it is the best teams in the world; they have trained for this and have the hopes of their countries with them.  The level is very high and the game is fast-paced.  There are thousands of spectators that have paid to watch.  You have the privilege of being there because someone believes in your ability.

Q: How did you prepare for the tournament?

A: There are three key areas of preparation; being up to speed, ensuring your technical knowledge is current and up to date and also ensuring you are physically fit.  The latter two elements are because you have to pass two tests in order to confirm your nomination and both come in the first two days of the tournament; firstly to pass the rules test, and secondly to pass the medical examination.  I have seen a senior referee sent home from a major championship for failing the medical so it is important to ensure you meet the FIVB requirements.  The most difficult preparation for all international matches, for me personally, is to be up to speed and also in the summer to find any volleyball to referee at all.  My preparation was the 2nd Round of the 2015 European Championships and 2014 World League in May and then in July the Final of the 2014 Men’s European League.  Then no volleyball for two months, but I could watch matches on the internet from the World League and World Grand Prix.  The technical knowledge is easier because FIVB / CEV have an e-learning tool and also for CEV competition we have to pass an annual test based on scenarios and video which helps a lot.  However, to be able to recite the rules correctly using the correct terminology always requires some extra swatting.  For the physical elements I am lucky enough to be around 25 BMI (limit is 27) and have generally low blood pressure so as long as my eyesight does not fail me (no comments!) I am okay for the medical.  But it is also necessary to have the stamina to be able to concentrate in a hot, noisy environment for up to 3 hours when movement may be significantly restricted as in the case of the 1st referee.

Q: What was your biggest challenge officiating in the World Championships?

A: The biggest challenge is dealing with the pressure as you are on stage.  You have responsibility to ensure that the teams are able to deliver the spectacular sporting show that they have trained for over the previous 4 years.  This is the FIVB’s top tournament and it is very important to use this to promote the sport across all the affiliated nations and also to new audiences and spectators.  The referee is central to ensuring that it is the volleyball that is promoted and that the show looks the same in every game.  We have tight tv deadlines and are live in each match so there can be no surprises.

Q: Which match did you most enjoy officiating and why?

A: I cannot say I enjoyed any particular match more than any other.  I felt as though I was refereeing well and had a great team of officials around me so every match was special.  However, refereeing countries like Brazil, China, and Japan is challenging and a privilege.  

Q: How did you keep your focus on the game with so many external influences around you?

A: You know what you have to do and what is expected and you have to deliver this.  So you concentrate on what is important and block out everything else.  If you stop to think that there are 5000 spectators and perhaps millions on television watching every decision you would never concentrate on what is happening in front of you.  It doesn’t matter whether it is National Division3 or the World Championships you approach the games in the same way.

Q: What other duties did you have on match days? Take us through a typical World Championship match, from when you arrive to when you leave.

A: At a major tournament the preparation on each day starts early with the referee meeting with the member of the Special Referee Commission assigned to your venue covering the issues raised in the previous day’s matches.  Once your nomination for the day is known you need ensure you are well rested and ready for the match.  Usually we arrive at the venue around 90 minutes before the start time.  This allows time to check all the equipment and ensure that you are changed and ready 60 minutes before the start to take the alcohol test.  Once this is over you have time to brief the line judges and scorers, the ball retrievers and receive any special information regarding the protocol and the start time from the Jury President.  Then it is time to ensure the communication equipment works and to go courtside as a team.  Then introduce yourself and your colleague to the head coach and ask whom the bench personnel are and relate and special instructions or comments that need to be made.  At 32 minutes you enter the match protocol and from then on you are managed by the clock and you need to do things at the correct time.  If you are 1st referee then you are checking the time throughout.  Once you are within 4 minutes of the start everything is now in the hands of the 2nd referee.  They are responsible for ensuring you start when tv want you to start.  Hopefully the match itself passes without either referee influencing the outcome.  After the match you need to shake hands with the team captains and coaches and thank the officials for their work.  Then it is to check the administration and sign off the match for the Jury Delegate and only once they are happy you can leave the control area.  Then it is to change, check that the local organiser does not need you for anything and find the transport coordinator, and finally leave often for a late dinner.

Q: How would you compare it to your other refereeing experiences at the top level?

A: I really enjoy all my international appointments.  But there is something about being involved in a major championship. It is being in the high level competition environment and refereeing the best teams day after day.  You don’t want it to end. There is the daily pressure to deliver but also to learn and for me time to watch my colleagues and some great volleyball.

Q: How would you evaluate your performances?

A: I feel I refereed quite well and I can check that because for each match there is a member of the Special Referee Commission present whom will score you and complete a match report on your performance which goes into your FIVB record.  In Trieste our delegate was Laszlo Herpai, a member of the Rules of Game Commission from Hungary.  My scores over the tournament increased with each game so I was able to show I was listening and improving my performance.  The early matches are the difficult ones as this is where the protocol may go wrong or you need to adjust to the delegates view on style and control.

Q: What did you learn the most from the tournament?

A: It is very important to be able to referee the same standard from the first game to the last.  The referees that are appointed to the medal matches in these events are those that show they can do this from game 1.  It is also true that sometimes you need to alter you style, something you have been doing and been told to do right through your career, but current thoughts have changed and you have to adapt.  It is uncomfortable but I know the basics of my game are sound and therefore I can accommodate small alterations without affecting my basic approach.

Q: Would you have any advice for a referee whose aim is to officiate in a future World Championships/elite level?

A: The best advice I can give is to keep in focus the goal and also to ensure that you learn from every match.  This does not mean that you should try and incorporate every piece of advice that you are given into your refereeing; we are given too many conflicting ideas for that.  You should be able to self-evaluate your performance and know what you did right and may be what has not gone so well.  But don’t beat yourself up if you make a poor decision, it happens, just ensure that the overall game is good.  Ask yourself “Did the better team win?” “Did you influence the match?”  Find your style and remember that is as much about what you do before and after the match as the decisions you make or don’t make during the game.