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The man on the line - ‘A fear of making mistakes is the first mistake’

The man on the line - ‘A fear of making mistakes is the first mistake’

A referee on error culture, decision-making under pressure and the ‘work-ref balance’

Norbert Grudzinski is a Bundesliga referee. Here he reveals how he combines his life on the touchline with his everyday work.

Half a bread roll with Nutella, a glass of milk and before he walks through the tunnel and onto the pitch, there must be at least one piece of cake. ‘Otherwise players like Marco Reus simply run away from me’ explains Nortbert Grudzinski with a smile. You wouldn’t expect this regular sugar ritual just by looking at 6ft 2” Norbert. His height means he all too often finds himself eye-to-eye with professional footballers like Jerome Boateng and Robert Lewandowski.

Norbert is a referee. He has been on the touchline as an assistant referee at 168 Bundesliga football matches, and has overseen 85 games in the 2nd Division of German football. That includes a few cup ties, such as in the DFB Cup and the UEFA Europa League.

‘I played football when I was younger and was always excited to watch the ref’s performance. When I turned 15, I simply signed myself up to train to become a referee. That was when I really caught the bug.’ This enthusiasm and passion have brought the 41-year-old a long way. In 1999 he refereed in German football’s second highest division, and in 2004 finally made it to the Bundesliga.

Norbert Grudzinski ‘The modern work culture makes the balancing act between office and stadium much simpler.’

Norbert Grudzinski, Assistant referee in the German Football Bundesliga

Work-ref balance: a question of work culture

The funny thing is, whenever he is asked about his job for a tax return or during a visit to the doctor, he states he is wholesaler and export trader. ‘Being a referee is a very intensive hobby’ says Norbert, as he explains about the regular proficiency tests, training sessions, match and player analysis and tactics evaluations. Before every match, he knows which players on the pitch are the hotheads, the crooks and the troublemakers. He knows which defensive lines in the Bundesliga are often caught out and therefore gladly appeal for offside. He knows the weaknesses, strengths and behaviour patterns of every player and still finds the time to work full-time in an open-plan office in Hamburg. ‘The modern work culture makes the balancing act between office and stadium much less complicated’ Norbert explains, referring to the possibilities - despite having to travel to a game the night before - of working on the move or flexibly from a hotel room, or making the most of flexible working hours. ‘Technology makes this much easier nowadays - of much greater importance is having the right culture within a team and above all a boss who trusts their employees and gives them their full backing.’

Norbert Grudzinski ‘There is no error culture in football. Every mistake can weigh heavily on my mind for an entire restless weekend.’

Norbert Grudzinski, Assistant referee in the German Football Bundesliga

Quick decisions with no margin for error

This also applies to Norbert’s other employer, the German Football Association (DFB). Just before kick-off, as he walks through the player’s tunnel out in front of the bellowing, cheering, whistling fans and the TV cameras, it helps to know that the DFB is behind him and will give him its full backing. ‘At least six million viewers watch Sportschau, a couple of million will watch the game on Sky and a few tens of thousands are there in the stadium,’ Nortbert calculates. ‘I always have the importance of the match at the back of my mind. Every serious mistake can weigh heavily on my mind for at least a whole restless weekend.’ Experience shows that somebody - whether a home or away fan - will be unsatisfied with Norbert’s performance at the end of the 90 minutes. Is this an error culture of the kind that is proclaimed and promoted in large corporations and businesses? There’s no such thing in football. Mistakes are unacceptable. And yet they still happen. It’s just logical. Referees and assistant referees have to make a decision almost every ten seconds, often within a split second and at full sprint. It is precisely because football followers do not forgive mistakes that we - as a team of referees - must have an open approach to mistakes, allow mutual criticism and learn from our errors, Norbert explains. Solidarity and mutual trust within the team are the most important tools in dealing with mistakes. The same applies in an office environment. ‘Having a fear of making mistakes would be the first mistake,’ Norbert asserts confidently.

‘You’re only there because you can do it. Trust in your ability,’ the relaxed-looking Norbert says to himself in critical moments - an attitude he has also adopted in the office, where it is just as important to keep emotions at bay in challenging situations. ‘The louder my counterpart becomes, the quieter I must be.’ Communicate with people calmly and level-headedly. Give clear feedback on performances, no matter whether it’s to a footballing world champion, a Bundesliga top scorer or a colleague in the office. Norbert sees switching between these two different professional worlds as a big advantage.

‘Work-ref balance’: Norbert Grudzinski takes many lessons from the playing field into the office.

After a week at work, a match and coaching to develop his refereeing skills, the 41-year-old can enjoy some well-earned downtime. For Norbert, this is best done on his balcony, coffee in hand, with a newspaper (minus the sports section) and the obligatory bread roll with Nutella.

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