Monday, June 27, 2022

Why hockey umpires are athletes: if we fail, we adapt and go again

I was going to write about my career, introducing myself and explaining why I am an umpire. I will write that story, for sure. But not today. I would like to tell you why we – international hockey umpires – are high performance athletes.

As a hockey umpire you have to be mentally and physically ready, and for that you train alone most of the time. It would be great to train with other umpires, but we all have a full-time job; some have kids, pets, a family to take care of and probably friends as well. 

Some umpires are also playing hockey or doing another sport, competing in other competitions.

To train we run, go to the gym, do shuttles, run more, stretch. For the mental side, we have to stay focused on the rules and their interpretations. Reading the rulebook, watching games, some alone, some in groups or with a mental coach. Being physically and mentally ready is so important because that is what both teams playing expect from umpires. 

The pace of the game is amazing and the skills of the players incredible and so we have to stay ahead of the game. 

But guess what – training is the easiest part of the job. 

Honestly, I am not complaining at all. I love the sport and every game is a bubble of happiness, 70 minutes where nothing else matters. I will not lie, I have spent some of the best moments of my life on a hockey pitch, as well as some of the worst.

This is what I want to explain next: the moment when the action begins. It all starts with an email from the organisation asking if you are available for that tournament, that country, that moment.

You need to combine your personal and work life with this new opportunity. A new team is about to start the journey to a tournament and you are part of it. A new group of umpires born. Sometimes you know the other umpires, maybe just by name and or not at all. You will need to create a connection with the group, because you will need to be a team on the pitch whoever your colleagues are.

To lead the group and make it grow, one or two umpire managers are assigned. They are here to make sure that we all have the same understanding of the rules and the same interpretations. They are also here to make the appointments for every game and guide every umpire along the way to be the best version of themselves on that pitch. They are also more people you need to create a connection with, other actors in the story and very important ones.

Speaking about actors we also have the chance to have judges, technical officers and a technical delegate to help us around the pitch, dealing with the organisation and the teams. 

I forgot to mention something that might be overlooked by English-speaking people, but that is very important for a lot of us: the language.

In this new world, the only language is English, so you better remember your English lessons because you will need it! When you speak relatively good English, it is not that hard but still very tiring to switch your brain to English.

Finally comes the most important moment of this story: the game. After months of preparation you finally get to go on the pitch and do your best to help the players. The national anthems are playing. You feel really small in the middle of that pitch but the moment is breathtaking.

And the whistle goes, the game is starting:

You need to have your own style, an appropriate style. 

You need to be in the shadows and step in when it is necessary.

You need to be the boss without being seen too much. 

You need to collaborate with your colleagues.

You need to help her if needed. 

All the while being careful to be in the best position possible in case the action comes back your way.

You need to whistle, show, think, move, interprete, speak, run, stop, interprete more, decide, watch the ball, anticipate, watch the off ball players, read the game. During 60 or 70 minutes you need to do all of this and, of course, you expect yourself to make the least mistakes possible. You want to serve the players the best you can. 

This is also why we love the game so much, because you always have to expect the unexpected; you meet new people every time, you learn new things every game. 

Let’s be honest, sometimes our game is not so great. Sometimes you don’t get appointed for the game you were expecting. Sometimes you make that one mistake that makes you feel bad when reviewing it. Like all athletes, sometimes we fail and as all athletes, we adapt and we go again. Because there is no better feeling than a smile of a player after a great goal, after a good advantage or the thanks from the coaches. 

A lot of people think it is strange to be an international hockey umpire – until they feel that moment of happiness when blowing their whistle on that pitch. 

So even if we don’t have a proper title in every country, even if we don’t get as much recognition as other athletes, we are high performances athletes in a very special way. We train hard, practice a lot and participate in amazing competitions. We fail, we learn, we can’t really win, but we enjoy it as much as possible. And for my part I try to remember every moment of it even when it hurts because it is where you learn the most about yourself. 

So, I’ll say it again. Umpires are athletes.

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