The night before game day, Gus Morris lays out his uniform, eats a meal that emphasizes carbs (think pasta with shrimp) and, like most days of the year, turns out the lights by 10 p.m. “Rest is really important,” he says.
Come morning, it’s peanut butter and banana toast for breakfast, a turkey sandwich (hold the mayo) for lunch and warmups with the team before kickoff.
Then, it’s game time, and Morris spends the next three or four hours sprinting, running backwards and doing any number of agility exercises — all while keeping his mind “laser-focused,” despite the inevitable heckles and boos from the crowd. Afterward, he’ll rest, reflect and do it again the next weekend. “When … they’re not talking about you after the game,” he says, “you’ve probably worked a good game.”
Morris is not a football player — instead he officiates college football games, working as an independent contractor for the Southeastern Conference. But like players, his and other officials’ jobs depend, to a large and increasing extent, on their health and fitness.
“The game is faster and therefore, they have to be faster,” says Sean Robbins, a sports and fitness trainer with facilities in North Canton and Akron, Ohio, who works with Big 10 officials. “The officiating association doesn’t want to risk putting a guy (in the game) who’s probably going to hurt himself if he can’t move.”
Morris and colleagues, for example, go through preseason physical assessments involving tests like timed runs, weigh-ins and agility exercises. NFL officials, meanwhile, attend an offseason clinic focusing on endurance, stretching, movement, nutrition and rest, according to NFL Football Operations.
During the season itself, officials may train with someone like Robbins, who mostly works with officials on sprinting and exercises to improve mobility in order to avoid injuries. For example, he may teach those that must run backward certain techniques to absorb the shock in both feet so that they don’t put too much pressure on their calves and Achilles tendons. He also helps them shorten their stride, a strategy that can help them spare their hamstrings from injuries.
“Working with officials is probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever had,” says Robbins, a former college track athlete. That’s because they’re often facing the typical restraints of age, carrying with them lingering tweaks from their days as competitive athletes and holding down day jobs and other responsibilities that necessitate efficient and realistic exercise and eating plans.
But those characteristics — and the type of functional, goal-oriented training they undergo — can make pros’ exercise routines relatable to the rest of us, whether that means emphasizing core work to avoid desk job-related back pain or focusing on cardio to keep up with your kids. Even if you can’t hire a personal trainer, “find yourself an accountability partner — someone to go on the journey with you,” Morris suggests.
Take a cue from how they improve, too: By tracking their progress and learning from their mistakes. Robbins, for instance, travels to games, records officials’ movements and adjusts training plans accordingly. He rarely watches the players during games anymore, he says, and often gets confused looks when he cheers for an official’s skillful move. “Look at the corner, and there’s probably going to be the side or field judge — they’re probably the most athletic officials,” he says. “Watch those guys and see how much they work.”
Mental health and cognitive abilities are critically important for football officials, too. “Being able to mentally function [is key] because sports is complicated, the rules are complicated and you have to be able to apply those rules in a split second,” says Morris, who also owns the Sports Officials Physical Training Institute in Cumming, Georgia. “You can’t be thinking, ‘there’s 7.5 minutes on the clock and then I’m out of here.'” NFL officials, for one, also attend a camp that teaches and tests the latest rules and the mechanics of their position.
Morris finds that maintaining a healthy routine — eating a balanced diet, exercising consistently and sleeping at least seven hours a night regularly — keeps his mind sharp, and his organization advises other officials how to do the same. “It’s establishing good habits and sticking to them and creating a routine,” he says. “It’s not reinventing the wheel.” The same advice applies to folks not working on the gridiron, health experts say. Research shows, for instance, that the minority of people who maintain weight loss do so by keeping up healthy habits like eating breakfast, limiting TV time and exercising every day — not yo-yo dieting. “Diet is a nasty word,” Morris says.
Officials also have to be able to manage their emotions and stay focused in the face of boos, jeers and Monday morning referees. In fact, almost 50 percent of respondents to a survey of male officials in a range of sports reported feeling unsafe or fearing for their safety due to administrator, coach, player or spectator behavior, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. “It’s hard for anyone in any walk of life to handle criticism, but it can be done,” says Morris, who believes preparation (both physically and in keeping on top of all the rules) and experience make the difference. If criticism is valid, he says, “learn from it.”
Ultimately, Morris finds his weekend gig is actually more of a stress reliever than a stressor. He finds the intense focus it demands is a sort of mindfulness exercise that helps him unplug from the week, and return to his other jobs refreshed.
[See: 9 Tips to Tame Work Stress.]
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a teacher or a doctor or a mechanic, you go through your daily grind,” Morris says. One of the best ways to manage the stressors that come with it, he says, is to allow your brain to focus on something completely different, whether that’s cooking, painting or joining a recreational sports league. “If you can do it with passion and totally focus on it for a couple of hours every so often,” he finds, “a lot of problems solve themselves, or you can come back with the solution.”
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