Ben Williams has been a Hyundai A-League referee since 2005 (previously an NSL referee) and a FIFA listed referee since 2003.
In 2014 Ben became the first male Australian referee to referee a Round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup. He also has the honour of refereeing at the 2012 London Olympics and AFC Asian Cup 2015 in Australia.
He shares some of his insights on being an elite referee in the Hyundai A-League.
How did you become involved in refereeing?
After not playing so well at school, a few of my mates and I undertook a referee's course during the end of year 'activity week' at school. My teacher, Chris Conti (long time devotee to state and national level football), ran the referee's course, and that was where the seed was planted. I was told that if we wanted to work hard, we could become a FIFA Referee, and a select few may be lucky enough to referee at a FIFA World Cup. The dream began that day in 1992. I began refereeing immediately, with Chris showing me the ropes early on. I did one year of refereeing junior football, before venturing into senior football. I was bitten by the refereeing bug and having the best seat in the house, and the rest is history.
Can you describe a week in the life of an A-League referee?
Our week begins at full time of our previous match. We have to look after our bodies in the same way that players do, so we focus on recovery immediately after that match, as it is immediate preparation for the next match. The whole week is geared around performing for the following match. We base our training, our diet, and post-match analysis, around what the needs are for us to be primed to referee the following round. We train together as a group 3-5 times per week, as well as our own individual sessions. I endeavour to look after my body in a professional manner, in terms of massage, acupuncture, physio, as well as sessions with my running technique coach, sports psychologist, and nutritionist. This all has to be balanced around our travel commitments also. Much of this travel is for our international commitments, for our FIFA Referees and Assistant Referees. It is not uncommon to referee in the Hyundai A-League on a weekend, then jump straight on a plane to the Middle East for a mid-week AFC Asian Champions League match, then return to Australia on a Thursday or Friday, get a taxi directly to our workplace, fit in training, and then prepare for that weekend's A-League match. This is today's modern football.
What do you do to keep a balance between your personal, professional and refereeing life?
As you can see from the above commitments, the work-life balance has been a very difficult thing to manage. Personally, I have been blessed to have a wonderful and hugely understanding and supportive wife. My family and friends have also been very understanding and supportive, despite not being able to spend much as much time with them as I'd hope. Prior to me becoming a full-time referee, I have been very lucky in having a supportive and understanding employer. As a teacher, the school in which I've taught have been very supportive in allowing me to travel domestically and internationally, sometimes for 140-150 days overseas in a single year. The students have always been very supportive and happy to see their teaching running around in the middle of some high quality football. I try to ensure that I show gratitude towards the people who have supported me throughout the tough times, as well as the triumphs.
How do you keep focused during a match and not let emotions influence decisions?
As referees, it is important to remember that we are human and to feel the emotion of matches - the emotions are what keep everyone hooked to our wonderful game. The key for us is allowing the emotion to be controlled. We work very hard on the training park to be prepared physically, mentally and tactically for what a match may throw at us. During a match, there are many potential match-changing decisions, and it is our responsibility to give ourselves the greatest chance of getting those decisions correct. If we focus on the crowd or the media or any external entity, our attention is not on the task at hand. Working with sports psychologists and football coaches allow us to understand ourselves and the game better, and we are therefore, better prepared to make the correct decisions and let the players hopefully decide the matches. I have worked with my refereeing team to define key words or phrases that we use during matches, to ensure that we remain switched on and ready for crucial decisions, as well as keep motivation and morale high during matches.
In your opinion, what has been the biggest change in football in recent years?
The biggest change is how the game changes tactically, and therefore the speed of the game. As tactical trends change, this impacts on player movement and ball movement. The advent of the counter-attacking game and coaches employing high-tempo ball movement has meant huge changes for the ways in which referees prepare physically and tactically for a match. We must think like players and read the game and anticipate, so that we are best placed to make the crucial decisions and give ourselves the greatest chance of getting those correct.
What is the key to building positive relationships with players and coaches?
I believe that mutual respect is crucial to building positive relationships. We don't often get too many opportunities to meet and have dialogue with coaches, as we usually spend most of our time working with the players on the pitch. I believe that open and respectful communication is key to positive relationships. It's important for all parties to have an understanding of the roles that each other play in the game. We want the match to be decided by the teams and not us. Sometimes referees have to make tough decisions that are unpopular, yet are right and best for the game.
What do you consider to be the most important characteristic of an elite referee?
I believe the most important thing for an elite referee is self-belief. If you don't believe in your ability to perform at the highest levels, you cannot convince anyone else to believe in you, or trust the decisions you make. The other important characteristic of an elite referee is to never stop learning. No matter your level of experience, the game is always changing and it is essential to continue learning to best adapt.
What match or moment stands out as a highlight in your refereeing career?
It was humbling to walk out and officiate at Old Trafford and Wembley during the 2012 London Olympics. My greatest moment was walking out with my great mates and Assistant Referees, Matthew Cream and Hakan Anaz, to officiate in 4 matches at the FIFA World Cup in Brasil. It was a dream come true that we had been working towards for well over 20 years, and to go and represent our friends and family, as well as FFA, AFC and FIFA, was a tremendous honour and something that I will never ever forget.