The saying goes, “without an umpire there is no game”. It’s said as a way to deter people from being negative toward umpires. But too often umpiring is seen as something you do because you need to help out, not because you want to umpire.
With that in mind I am writing from the heart, as someone who has umpired for more than 16 years at various levels.
I started my umpiring journey at my school boy club Ely City. My first game was the ladies 1st XI. It was far too high a standard for me and early on I was making mistakes and not handling the pressure. Less than half way through the game my watch stopped working which just added to the embarrassment. At times I found some of the players intimidating but afterwards they were complementary and supportive, so perhaps it wasn't a total disaster!
Despite all the drama and blushing as I fumbled through the game I actually enjoyed it.
I got to see some good hockey up close and help my friends enjoy the game. I took this lesson forward and umpired the ladies matches when I was at Sixth Form in Cambridge. It meant I was now umpiring a few girls who were playing national league, again learning, plus I ended up getting my first girlfriend out of it! When I was injured I would umpire the boys team as I could not play.
At this point my teacher and head of hockey, Miss Hemming, encouraged me to take my umpiring more seriously, saying I could go far with it.
When I went to the University of Southampton I found the journey a bit frustrating at times, in terms of securing coaching and support, however again I was umpiring a lot of good players - many of whom went on to play national league post graduation, or they were already playing national league for their weekend club team.
Having left university I joined Cambridge City HC where I focussed on my coaching primarily, moving up the ranks but still doing umpiring as and when I could. I was then encouraged by Tim, an active member of my club to try and move forward, so I did more and more games and earned my Level 2. I also umpired the mens and ladies 1st XI in preseason fixtures for national league pretty much every year.
By my estimation I have now done about 420 games while maintaining a playing and coaching career. For a variety of reasons I haven’t taken it as far as I could, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it and still do to this day. Just days ago I umpired current Great Britain player Grace Balsdon and a number of retired, and future internationals.
The main things I’ve taken away from umpiring so far are:
- The good ones will share their knowledge and experience with you. I have a number of friends who umpire for the FIH at international level and for the NPUA at national league level. I’ve never been turned down by any of them when I have asked for help.
- Umpires often take the game more seriously than you think. Pretty much everyone will, at some point, have blamed the umpire for losing a game. I definitely did in the past! If you actually look and listen to the umpires at the top end, these guys and gals work on their fitness, analyse their game, go through hours of feedback and debate - these guys take it very seriously. They travel hours and hours every weekend just like players do. They put in a huge commitment and they feel it when they make a mistake, just as players do.
- Umpires are nice people too! I randomly ended up on the same bus as the umpires during a recent international tournament in London featuring the best umpires in the game today. It was nice to hear how they spoke about the games, how they worked together but also how they just took the mickey out of one another and relaxed together.
- For me the reasons I enjoy umpiring is that I have learnt loads: be it listening to Helen Richardson-Walsh talk to her teammates up close, signalling a goal after utterly insane skill from Harry Martin (he dribbled in the air around four defenders, dummied the ball to the bottom left corner, dragged it back - in the air - and put it in the right corner of the goal) or improving my ability to better see the game from a players perspective, understand their reality and ensure they enjoy the game safely and fairly.
My next umpiring commitment is a pre-season friendly between Cambridge City and Leicester. I’m looking forward to it because there will be a variety of former Olympic and international athletes in the game, a collection of kids who are clearly going to make it to that level themselves, but most importantly because I have friends in both teams and I get to help them enjoy the game and learn from their performance.
It is easy to take up umpiring. Most clubs are willing to fund you through the course and increasingly there is good work from the national governing bodies to improve accessibility and role models. Find an umpiring course via England Hockey, Welsh Hockey or Scottish Hockey now!
About the author
Simon is the Decathlon UK Hockey Leader and a Level 2 hockey umpire. He has supported his club for over ten years, regularly umpiring national league friendlies and supporting other umpires in developing their game.