This week there was an article released by a top Australian player about officials and their accountability in the game. The original article can be found on UK site The Hockey Paper. In it, Simon Orchard provided his viewpoint on the role and approach that officials have in top level club, National and International hockey from his experiences as a Kookaburra.
Below is a response to Simon Orchard’s article ‘It’s time umpires learnt the game’ re-written from the perspective of an official. I hope it provides food for thought, and another side to this very complex story.
I am proud to be an official. I am part of a team, a part of a club just like any player. My club colours are fluro yellow & pink. And as dorky as my skirt and long black socks can be, I love them. I take pride in my performance on the field and I am always accountable for my game. If I make an error, you better believe that I will stew on it for the rest of the week until I get a chance to hit the field and redeem myself the next weekend.
The article written by Orchard was ignorant and self-indulgent. Umpires will make mistakes, so do players. Mistakes are how we learn. We need to work together to close the gap and realise that all of us are out there to have fun and be involved in the sport we love regardless of what level we play at.
Orchard characterises aspects of weak umpires and generalises for the whole community, ignoring that many of these same characteristics are present in the players (and even himself) who engage with umpires on the pitch.
“The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, they just don’t know the game”, the great Bill Shankly once said. I have to say I agree with the former Scottish footballer and ex-Liverpool manager wholeheartedly.
“The trouble with players is that they know the game, they just don’t always understand the intent of the rules”, the great Keeley O’Reilly once said. I have to say I agree with the current Premier League umpire wholeheartedly.
Many top whistle-blowers have a general understanding of the rules of hockey. However, a large number of them severely lack the ability to consistently apply, enforce or define them in the pressure-cooker environment that can be elite sport.
Many top players have a general understanding of the rules of hockey. However, a large number of them severely lack the ability to understand that they might not have seen things correctly from their position, or that something else that they missed might have happened while they were completing an action. In a pressure-cooker environment that is elite sport, they sometimes become so focussed on their own performance that they forget that the officials and their opponents are also working just as hard to achieve perfection.
‘But without referees, we wouldn’t have ourselves a game’, I hear many say. What a cop out.
That’s just a common cliché that oh too often absolves officials of having to provide an acceptable performance.
‘But without referees, we wouldn’t have ourselves a game’, I hear many say. This isn’t true – we would, but would you want to play a lawless game of hockey? You know that people carry around long pieces of carbon fibre right? Surely you get how potentially dangerous honesty rules would be? But good luck to you wanting to play a game sans officials. I like my face, knees, shins and my expensive lump of carbon fibre too much for that.
Don’t see this piece as misguided frustration at officials, rather a plea for increased standards of officialdom across our sport. Because at the risk of sounding rather exaggerated, umpires have been the bane of my existence as a hockey player.
Don’t see this piece as misguided frustration at players, rather a plea for increased standards of player behaviour and education across our sport. Because at the risk of sounding rather exaggerated, players have been the bane of my existence as an umpire.
My weakness. My Achilles heel. My kryptonite. The only real variable that has consistently, and at times severely, distracted me from my hockey career.
I don’t even know what to say to this… Maybe you’re just letting the umpires affect your game too much. Just get on with it, like an official has to do after copping a spray from a player.
Today, I will attempt to dissect the most unrewarding role in sport, from a perspective that frequently places me in the official’s crosshairs.
Today, I will attempt to rebut the assertions made by Simon Orchard about the most unrewarding role in sport, from the perspective of someone who knows what it feels like to be screamed at, belittled and abused for making a split second decision.
It’s no secret I constantly find myself in strife with the powers that rule our game, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but don’t be fooled. I have a certain sense of disdain for many umpires, and here’s why:
It is no secret that umpires constantly find themselves in strife with the player of a game, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but don’t be fooled. I have a certain sense of disdain for many players who speak with such ignorance, and here’s why:
1) Lack of accountability
What happens after each match? Review meetings? Do they watch video of controversial decisions? Are umpires presented with feedback reports?
After every match, officials are taken into a room with their coach to discuss how the game went, strengths, weaknesses, ways to improve. They have a review meeting. Where their meager funding allows (or where they can get access to videos prepared by others that aren’t perfectly fit for purpose) they watch back controversial decisions and discuss what happened. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they aren’t. It happens. Umpires at all championships are presented with feedback reports, and they are graded and ranked.
Other sports constantly review their officials, assessing them on things like decision-making, management of players, general skill, communication, and how well they help their co-umpire.
Just like other sports, Hockey constantly reviews their officials, assessing them on things like decision-making, management of players, general skill, communication and how well they help their co-umpire.
My reasons for this train of thought are usually centred on garnering the clarity and accountability that players, coaches and spectators crave and deserve.
The umpire is aware of the importance of every single game, and every single event, and they work hard to be their best for the players, the coaches, the spectators, the sport, their co-umpire and themselves. The umpire is always aware that a poor performance will affect their ranking, score, and potentially their opportunity for future appointments. Umpires do not get three trials, and a training squad or twice-weekly pitch time, before a tournament or competition match. Mistakes or areas for improvement are played out in the competition environment, and their opportunities for their next appointment are judged solely on that.
*Exhibit A: Wave away the protests: South African players gather round to contest the umpire’s decision
2) Poor communication skills
The worst officials can’t engage with players in the right manner, some can’t engage at all. Walking onto the field with a whistle doesn’t put you on a pedestal where you are immune from acknowledging those around you in a courteous manner.
Let’s flip this a second. The worst players can’t engage with officials in the right manner, some can’t help but engage consistently throughout a match. Walking onto the field with a stick doesn’t put you on a pedestal where you are immune from acknowledging those around you in a courteous manner.
*Please now look at exhibit A, you have 3 players clearing being really ‘courteous’ to an official. Respect and courtesy is a two-way street.
In my opinion, you earn respect with how you treat and speak to the players before, during and after the match. Poor umpires will meet any questions during the match with a figurative brick wall of dialogue.
In my opinion, you earn respect with how you treat and speak to the officials before, during and after the match. Disrespectful players will not always get answers to questions in a match if they come up screaming in the officials face. A player who asks a reasonable question, in a polite way is far more likely to have an umpire listen to them, and respond. It should be noted that officials are actively encouraged to be approachable after the match, after emotion that clouds the issue can be removed.
It’s amazing how much back and forth happens in sport around the world between players and officials, which naturally helps to build rapport. Not in our world, the precious umpires of the hockey scene can’t and won’t tolerate much discussion at all.
It is amazing how back and forth happens in sport around the world between players and officials, which naturally helps to build rapport. In the hockey world, the fast-paced nature of the game means that the officials can’t do so on the pitch. As officials, we agree that conversations, not yelling matches or stony silence, are where the greatest benefit is gained from both parties. Most umpires in Australia are humans with personalities who are more than happy to engage in reasonable conversation at the appropriate time.
3) Remove the emotion and lose the ego
The biggest predicament that I believe umpires must overcome is how to remove the emotion that comes with refereeing.
The biggest predicament that I believe players must overcome is how to remove the emotion that comes with playing.
I always believe high-level players make the best umpires. They understand the game; they have a great knowledge of the rules and of how to implement them; they have dealt with the pressures associated with top-flight hockey, but most importantly, they know it feels to be playing at that level.
I tend to agree that high-level players can make great umpires. But very few of these people transition into umpiring, and the two skills are not mutually exclusive as there are plenty of amazing umpires that have never played at the top level. What is it about umpiring that prevents top players from making it as top umpires? Time and sacrifices (particularly after a demanding playing career), perhaps? A low appetite for abuse from players?.
The pressure. The stakes. The potential importance of each and every decision.
The pressure. The stakes. The potential importance of each and every decision.
The worst referees don’t understand this and tend to escalate situations, instead of defusing them. They referee with a chip on their shoulder and almost go looking for retribution, any chance to stamp their authority on a troublesome player. A big no no if you wish to maintain the status quo with both teams.
The worst players don’t understand this and tend to escalate situations, instead of just getting on with their game. They play with a chip on their shoulder and almost go looking for retribution, any chance to prove the umpire is out to get them. They get frustrated about a decision that they didn’t agree with and then take that frustration out (verbally) on the official or get distracted from their role in the team, a no-no if you want to stay on the pitch.
Make a mistake, and get chastised from pillar to post, pinned to the wall by pundits and players until your next match. Make no mistakes and just disappear into the background.
Make a mistake (as a player), and get chastised from pillar to post, pinned to the wall by pundits and umpires until your next match (oh wait. Nope, that is just umpires that get that kind of treatment). Make no mistakes, or in fact, do something amazing and no one would even acknowledge that in the dying minutes of the game you played the best advantage from the defensive 25 which actually landed the team that is 1 goal down a chance to attack and maybe even get a shot on goal or a PC. But boy did that player get a cheer.
The best umpires will help to raise the standard of the game, thus increasing the enjoyment for players and spectators.
The best umpires will help to raise the standard of the game, thus increasing the enjoyment for themselves, the players and the spectators.
This can easily be achieved if umpires do four simple things: stay accountable; communicate well; keep your emotions in check; and learn the game.
This can easily be achieved if players and umpires together do four simple things: stay accountable, communicate well, keep your emotions in check; and learn the rules and the game.