Who’s Watching?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

By Greg Cudmore
AFLQ Community Football
Umpiring Coach

Since I first began coaching umpires in 1984 in the Bass Valley League I have tried to resolve the puzzle of what makes a good umpire.  I believe it has a lot to do with perception. The best umpires seem to see better! Not in the sense of 20-20 vision but the capacity to see and read a situation.

How many times have you heard the crowd scream “Open your eyes!  You saw that!  Where’s your guide dog?” The reality is that the vast majority of umpires will pay a free kick if they see one. But this begs the question why 100,000 spectators see a free kick and the umpire doesn’t. The explanation could be simply that the umpire’s vision was blocked by another player and they did not see the infringement.  If a fellow umpire detects the infringement it’s a bonus. Always be grateful for an out of zone whistle: it’s one less free kick missed!

However as a coach and observer I am often mystified when an apparent free kick is still missed and there are no players blocking the umpire’s view. My theory is that the best umpires know how to really watch the game.

An experiment in an American University had undergraduates attend a party fitted with cameras which showed exactly what they were watching. The experiment wanted to reveal exactly what part of the opposite gender’s anatomy the student would look at first. Without divulging the results, apart from the finding that the males in the experiment often did not watch the females’ faces first up, an interesting result was that the students often challenged the results.  They argued the camera was lying and they weren’t looking where the camera said they were.  Either they were embarrassed to admit what they looking at or were sub consciously not aware of the object of their glances.

This lead me to ask the critical question: what am I watching when I umpire? Clearly I am watching what I believe is important. But here is the rub. Some umpires are watching what matters whilst others are watching elsewhere.  I am not referring to differing interpretations of the same event when one umpire sees holding the ball and the other a ball up. I am assuming both umpires were watching exactly the same progression of events and undertook a split second checklist:

  • Was there prior opportunity?
  • Was the tackle legal?
  • Was the ball knocked out in the tackle?
  • Was the disposal legal?

This amazingly complex mental exercise, often made under extreme pressure, may result in conflicting decisions. This is understandable and acceptable to most sane football followers.

What is less forgivable is when umpires miss free kicks they should have seen. The answer may very well be that they are not watching the game as an umpire. As a former player it took me some time to stop looking at the ball, chasing the ball’s trajectory and accelerating to where the ball had stopped.  As a spectator I will watch patterns of play often looking ahead of the ball to anticipate a set play.

But as an umpire I must develop a different watching mode. Generally I am not interested in the ball – it is much more important to watch other players rather than the player with the ball.  Take these instances:

  • How often do umpires miss the off the ball infringements because they are watching the player with the ball?
  • How often do they miss taggers infringing against a star opponent or unlawful contact against a shepherding player off the ball? 
  • How often do umpires miss late tackles because they immediately look to where the ball has travelled rather than dwell on the disposal scene? 
  • How often are marking infringements missed because the umpire is watching the ball arriving at the contest rather than what players are doing to each other when the ball is in flight?
  • What is the umpire watching when an infringement happens after the ball goes out of bounds?  Making eye contact with the boundary umpire might be good teamwork but not if you take your eyes off an offending player pushing his opponent over the boundary fence. 
  • What is the umpire watching when a forward retaliates against their opponent after a goal has been scored and the ball is being returned to the centre?

The challenge is to reflect on what and where you are watching during the game. Free kicks are more likely when there are packs of players. It is vital that umpires aggressively sheep dog packs to catch these infringements.  Just as important is to work harder to get side on to contests.  But even then it won’t make much difference if you are only looking and not watching.

Who said umpiring was easy?

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