Love of the Game

Thursday, April 26, 2012

By Peter Schwab
AFL Director of Coaching

Community football has well and truly started and as we do every year, we allocate a particular round of the season to focus on the important role of the umpire in our game. So this year Round 6 of the AFL season will be designated umpiring round throughout the whole country with a particular focus on community football where the bulk of people play the game.

The evolution of football which is always driven at the AFL level will have a significant impact on umpiring. The current AFL game in simple terms is a game where a significant number of players are battling for possession under extreme pressure in a confined space of the ground in their effort to keep the ball in motion and going their way. Umpires are under instruction to encourage the ball to remain in motion and avoid calling for stoppages. This combination has made football a very difficult game to umpire. 

Thankfully, we have people willing to take on the role of umpie at all levels. At community level, many of them I am sure will be doing it for the very first time, and like playing football for the very first time, they will be nervous and apprehensive, but willing to get in there and do their best. Like first-time players, first-time umpires will make mistakes, that’s naturally going to happen, it’s the only way they can learn and improve.

However it does seems we are more forgiving of players making mistakes than umpires. It is rare, and unacceptable to hear the coach or crowd yelling and abusing a young player because he dropped a mark or didn’t shepherd when he could have. In fact, we’d be shocked if we witnessed that behaviour. But it seems umpires are fair game when it comes to how we respond to their mistakes. Maybe there is a positive in all of this. Maybe it’s because people have higher expectations from those who umpire, as though an umpire is somehow incapable of making a mistake. 

You’d be right to wonder if umpiring was a thankless task. The umpiring groups around the country will tell you it can be at times, but it certainly isn’t all bad, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. In fact, it was the umpires and the umpiring fraternity who told us to do away with the concept of Thanks Ump Round. They didn’t want to be seen as seeking a thank you or even appreciation for the part they play in the game, although I am sure words of encouragement and appreciation won’t go astray.

In reviewing the key messages umpires around the country wanted to convey to the broader football public about the role of umpires it settled upon a few key points.

They simply want to convey to people that umpires enjoy umpiring for a variety of reasons like learning new skills, having fun and enjoying what they do, getting fit, getting paid and probably the most important point was being seen as a part of our great game.

At our AFL National Coaching Conference in February this year Paul Reiffel, former Australian cricketer and current International Cricket Council (ICC) umpire and referee, spoke about his transition from player to umpire and the adjustments and learning process he needed to undertake. It was a thoughtful and insightful presentation.

But the one point Reiffel made, which most of us in the audience had never considered was that umpiring was “cool” or we needed to sell the message it was cool. What he felt was most cool about umpiring was that you actually had the best seat in the house to view the game.

This leads very strongly into the message umpires want people to understand. Umpires like players, love being a part of the game and they love the game as much as anyone involved in it does.

Trawling through the worldwide web (read Google) I read many things about umpiring, refereeing and judging. Some of what I read was very technical, but fortunately some of it was very personal.

One in particular I really liked was by a man called James Rodrigues, an American, who spoke of his experiences as a volunteer umpire for the Redmond Little League (Washington).

He outlines below why he found umpiring to be a rewarding undertaking.

“Firstly, you know that you are helping make the baseball game a better experience for both the players and the fans, which gives you a sense of accomplishment. Secondly, the kids, coaches, and parents (from both the winning and losing teams) often thank you for your effort after the game, which shows appreciation. Thirdly, it is neat to get that close to the game and have the umpire stories to tell—which, unlike the talks of your child's first day at school, you find to be met by attentive folks who are interested in hearing your tale (which they, in turn, will likely tell others about later). I think that I'll keep doing it, and I would encourage others to try it out. If you stick with it, I guarantee your decision-making and assertiveness will readily improve.”

You may still be unconvinced about umpiring and even why we take a round of our season to even think about them, but if you can see it in the context of making the environment within how the game is played, coached, administered, supported and umpired as being as positive as possible then you have to understand why we should.

If you are still not convinced? Then think about this. Do you agree that every participant in our game should be free of abuse and disrespect for taking part? If you said no, then have a good hard look at yourself.

If you said yes, then well done, but understand that in a survey of retiring umpires last year approximately 20% of them list poor match day environment as a major factor in not continuing. As a game we have certainly made progress with creating more welcoming, inclusive and respectful match day environments. This has been possible through the great work and education done by our community leagues and clubs. That’s a major reason why umpire round remains an annual fixture.

It is an easy cliché to conclude this article on, but as we continue to grow the number of players participating we will need more grounds on which to play, more work will fall onto leagues and clubs to administer the increased participation, more coaches to coach more teams and finally more umpires to umpire more games.

It’s good if you can take the time to thank the umpires, but better if you understand why they love being a part of the game.

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