Nathan Verboomen: interview with FIFA referee from Belgian premier league

Referee Nathan Verboomen is carried by a positive flow: FIFA referee, officiating Belgium’s top-billing matches…  “It appears I have not reached my ceiling yet,” he muses in an interview with Dutch Referee Blog. In addition to offering a glimpse into Nathan’s career, this interview will spill the details of the weekly training regimen of an elite referee and share tips to help you stay motivated. 

The story was translated by Ben van Maaren, which is greatly appreciated. Ben has a great collection of refereeing books and magazines. Check it out on benbalin.libib.com or follow Ben on Twitter.

Referee Nathan Verboomen
Nathan Verboomen during UCL qualifier Legia Warsaw and Omonia Nicosia

Pre-match anticipation

“It’s the pre-match anticipation that puts the fun into refereeing,” Nathan Verboomen observes. “You have a goal to train for. Then there’s the preparations, which you do together with your assistants, and then the match itself. That’s not all, though. Taking those tough decisions during a match and knowing you were right. Playing that advantage, and just enjoying the match unfolding before your eyes, witnessing a belter of a goal. Simply being allowed to be part of football. Like: Whoa! I’m right in the middle of it. In the middle of players selected for our Red Devils [the nickname for the Belgian national squad], for example.

The higher the level, the more Nathan enjoys himself. Better football, fewer mistakes. “In the local leagues, you blow your whistle constantly.” He’s found that the pros will try and get that advantage, even after a minor offence. They also have a better understanding of the game and tend to accept decisions better, especially if you let the game flow. 

How to keep yourself motivated as a second-tier ref

In addition to reffing matches in Belgium’s top tier and international ties, Nathan Verboomen sometimes gets assigned to second-tier matches. “It’s at this level that you have to prove your worth, so you get those big-ticket matches later.” In fact, the expectations the clubs in Belgium’s second pro league have of Nathan Verboomen may be higher than they are in Europe. “Because in Belgium they know who I am, so I can’t afford any slip-ups here.” 

Although there are no UEFA Youth League ties at the moment, Nathan Verboomen does see plenty of opportunity for development and is highly motivated. “I’m in a positive flow right now, the trend is upwards. I get appointed to many top-five matches, like Anderlecht vs Genk.” He expects that while for international elite referees the Champions League may provide a stimulus, Anderlecht vs Brugge is still the top assignment in Belgium. After all, they have been the top rivals and title contenders in Belgium through the ages. 

A referee needs a challenge

Nathan Verboomen is always eager going to a match. “I have yet to reach my ceiling, which makes it easier to deal with setbacks. That positive flow is still carrying me upwards.” He does believe that it can be demotivating for young referees to be told at their early age that that road upwards is closed to them. “That puts a real damper on your motivation and ambitions.” According to Nathan, it is similar to your job. You want to develop, see how far you can grow in your position. If you reach the ceiling, you either settle for that, or you start looking for something new. 

Nathan Verboomen at the VAR screen in the Belgian top league

Manage your expectations

There are fewer than 20 referees in the Belgian top league, but once you reach that level, you immediately start at the bottom of the European ladder again. Nathan Verboomen takes his development seriously, taking one step at a time. “That another major tip I want to share with starting referees. Don’t start out by saying you want to be an international referee. Take it a step at a time. A tough match in your Saturday league may set you back already.” 

Although there’s nothing wrong with having a dream, Nathan Verboomen warns against begin overly optimistic. “The opportunities in Europe are few and far between as it is, and it’s at those very times that you have to prove your mettle. For some of us, things can develop rapidly, very rapidly, for others it’s the end of the ride after a single poor performance. I guess that’s the extra bit of pressure that comes with refereeing.” 

You need to be aware of the fact that the chances of being appointed to the World Cup final are slim. It’s a once-in-four-years tournament, with the man in charge of the final often coming from another continent. 

Continue to develop yourself

Nathan’s goalkeeper career was cut short, after he spent too much time digging balls from the net behind him. He played at too low a level for his career as a referee to benefit from it, he believes. “Many of my colleagues in the Belgian First Division played at much higher levels. Reading the game is probably my biggest weakness, they’re better at it.” But he’s working on it. “What do players expect? That “big match feeling” is something you will get, particularly if you make it to the top. As a referee, you start your run before the ball has even been kicked, you know where it will end up. That’s why they often say: the higher up you go, the easier it gets. The game makes more sense.”

Nathan Verboomen: Reffing and private life 

After ten years combining his teaching job with reffing, and two years as a FIFA referee, Nathan called quits on his time in the classroom. He was a full-time pro referee for a year and then accepted a job as nutrition expert for 6D Sports Nutrition.

“In that year as a pro referee, I found the focus on refereeing to be overbearing. You eat, sleep and drink football. Too much football is not good either. You need diversity. I got that in my personal life when my son was born, but in my working life I also need to be able to focus on different things.” 

Nutrition is key. According to Nathan, referees should put their diets under the microscope, see how nutrition can help them recover more quickly after a match, for example. “Your muscles need to recover after exercise. Sleep is one way, and you can also adapt your sports nutrition.” 

Nathan Verboomen’s week of training

Nathan has had no trouble motivating himself at any point during the pandemic. “I’m a sucker for exercise, I love to train.” He believes training is where you can set yourself apart from the others. Train now and enjoy the sweet fruit of your labour later, is his mantra. 

In January and February, there were a ton of midweek matches to catch up with the schedule. In Belgium, as in many other countries, the season started late on account of the pandemic. Physically, those midweek matches proved heavily demanding, so you adjust your training efforts accordingly. With one match a week, this is Nathan’s ideal training schedule. 

What does Nathan’s match preparation look like? “You know, you kind of slip into a pattern. It does not take super long. I activate my muscles before the game, get that acceleration in them. Stamina is not the issue. Warm up well. Active stretching to reduce muscle soreness afterwards.” Nathan also does core training and power training on top of his normal exercise. 

He remarks that there’s plenty of options for referees if they don’t have a fixture. “Even online. I noticed you had an item about Jan Boterberg.” This colleague of Nathan, from Oostende, organised online exercises, which I (Jan) was welcome to attend as a blogger on refereeing. “Excellent initiative!” 

Vary your training

“It makes no sense to train like a fanatic every day,” Nathan stresses. “Vary your training, listen to your body. Rest is just as much training as exercise. But if you train, train well. If I do High Intensity training and my schedule says 10 minutes, I try to put in 11 minutes. Just that one step extra. But on those days that you need to rest, you absolutely take your rest.” 

“As a referee, you don’t work towards one specific moment building up your training regimen. “It’s important to stay fit throughout the season. Referees like Björn Kuipers, they also work towards the Euros and will adjust their regimen accordingly. But normally, as a referee you need to make sure you’re fit from day 1 all the way to the final day. Don’t peak out or you’ll start sliding downwards. You have to be at the top of your fitness level at the start of the season and stay at that level as long as possible.”

The story was translated by Ben van Maaren, which is greatly appreciated. Ben has a great collection of refereeing books and magazines. Check it out on benbalin.libib.com or follow Ben on Twitter.

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