Babies, bleep tests and barrier removal – Unsworth on reffing after children

A mere mention of the ‘bleep test’ can send shivers down the spine, as memories of school PE classes stir in the mind.

The simple, yet effective speed and endurance test has been a staple in schools (and causing misery) for generations.

Ahead of the 2023 National Cup Finals, FIBA licensed referee Kate Unsworth stepped off the court to speak to Basketball England having just completed it as part of her referee fitness training.

Fit as a fiddle, the 39-year-old is getting back into the swing of life as an international basketball referee, having had her second child, Daisy, six months ago. In fact, Unsworth made her comeback just 10 weeks postpartum, copying her approach to maternity and refereeing as she did for her first child.

“When I came back from having Isabelle, I listened to my body and didn’t rush because that’s when you can pick up niggling injuries,” said Unsworth. “Post my doctor’s check, I just started walking and jogging and building [my fitness] slowly.

“Because I’m a PE teacher, I’m constantly moving with the children, doing the warm-ups, stretches and yoga and that really helped me get back into it quite quickly. I think I did my bleep test for FIBA eight to 10 weeks [after giving birth] and meant I could referee some international games. And I’ve done the same with Daisy.”

A photograph of FIBA international referee Kate Unsworth and new baby
Kate Unsworth with new baby Daisy and joined by fellow refs Steve Ferriss (left) and Pawel Szafraniec (right).

‘Balancing refereeing, being a new mum and family life’

From Manchester, Unsworth was introduced to the aspects of basketball: refereeing, table officiating and playing under the tutorship of Joe and Maggie Fober at the Trafford Basketball Centre in Sale.

She then moved to Sheffield to play for the Sheffield Hatters.

While in the Steel City, she was acquainted with fellow FIBA ref and future brother-in-law Simon Unsworth – her husband Paul is also international ref pedigree – who knew she had a background in refereeing and asked her if she would consider coming back to the world of the lead, the centre and the trail.

Without hesitation, she picked up the whistle and hasn’t looked back. From local league to completing her Level Four Referee certificate and FIBA Licence, you will find Unsworth making calls on the international stage and domestically in the BBL, WBBL and NBL.  

The Mancunian says that the drive to get back on the court post-pregnancy is because of a love and passion for the craft of officiating; the thrill of communicating and verbalising the rules of the game, but acknowledges that it has been a tough task, especially when balancing the very real logistics and dilemmas of international refereeing, being a new mum, breastfeeding, and family life.

“Paul’s a fantastic dad and husband and obviously looks after the children a lot. But it has been difficult with managing availability for FIBA because we're both international referees. We haven’t always been available and perhaps not had as many games because we’re not in a position to leave two children, say with my mum, without one of us. So, we’ve taken it in turns because children and the family come first.

“Whether you choose to breastfeed or bottle feed, it’s very difficult to be away from your child. I chose to breastfeed and was fortunate enough to be able to do that, but that also comes with things to think about when you are away because you have to express somehow, and if you’re not with your child, you have to find ways and means.

“I've been fortunate to have a few games this season. It's been a challenge, but it's been positive and I'm just glad to be back on court because it's such a passion of mine. I love refereeing. And if I go away, I'm going on court and thinking I've got to do the best job, even though I always think that, but even more now because I'm leaving two children at home.”

Photograph of FIBA international referee Kate Unsworth
Kate Unsworth is a FIBA referee. Image - Paul Valentin

FIBA’s maternity package

With intentions to embrace equity and recognise the challenges its female referees face when having children, FIBA has pushed hard for a maternity package and has launched the FIBA Referee Maternity Plan.

FIBA’s Head of Refereeing Carl Jungebrand has said ‘research has shown a legitimate concern about the potential of FIBA female referees being sidelined from officiating activities during their maternity leave’ and as such the plan is being implemented to mitigate exclusion.

The move follows similar policy applications by the likes of the Rugby Football Union, and building on its pregnancy guidance published in 2021, UK Sport has recently announced a joint venture with Loughborough University to ‘spearhead a new project’ that will ensure athlete partners in the high-performance community will also be ‘supported fairly should they wish to start a family’.

With the FIBA rule that you must stop refereeing internationally at 50, Unsworth says while she can, she wants to do it.

“If you can pass a fitness test and you know the rules and get to the end line in front of the players, there's no reason to stop. The day that stops is the day I'll hang up my boots, but at the minute, I'm feeling fit and feeling good.”


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