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Umpiring: the unexpected side-lined art and the lifeblood of hockey

An article dedicated to the art of field hockey umpires; from grass roots to international.

A big headline.  But very much deserving.  Umpiring is hands down an art form, and I challenge anyone to refute me on this.  The lords of the rules can make or break a hockey match, can’t they? How many times have you left a hockey match either feeling seriously impressed with the ability and good natured attitude of an umpire that added another dimension to the game? Or, unfortunately, leaving a game feeling deflated as the umpiring standard was very below par and took the wind out of yours, and the team’s, sails due to inconsistency, bad temperament and cutting words of an irritable ref? Before the new season is upon us I think it’s time to take a second to consider the art of umpiring, and how this affects us as players.

During the EuroHockey Championships, both II and I, which I was following closely, I noticed that the umpiring was world class.  The confidence that they were emanating was utterly spell binding, and it was a pleasure to watch.  One of the stand out attributes that I thought was a testament to our sport was the fantastic communication skills each official possessed.  Clear understanding, mixed with a tolerant countenance and warming personalities added another depth to the tournament.  It was an absolute pleasure to watch because they created a trusting atmosphere on the pitch that even travelled through the screen.  If that’s not talent, I don’t know what is.

Sarah Wilson from Scotland got the opportunity to umpire the EuroHockey Championships I final – where she did a phenomenal job, and obviously made such an impact on her journey to and through the championships to be given the opportunity to umpire such an important match.  I was highly impressed each time she umpired, so really pleased for her.  Another notable umpire during last week’s hockey feast was Emma Shelbourn from England and France’s Karine Alves who showcased some professionalism and grace throughout the whole tournament.

One Tweet that we sent during the EuroHockey Championships was this, which I’m glad was able to gain some attention, because umpires are often side-lined, and can be a very lonely position on the pitch:

But what makes our transcendent role models people we aspire to be like? Or we respect so much we think to ourselves: “wow, I don’t know how they do it”.

Well, as a newbie umpire myself, going through the mill in order to be qualified (it’s not as simple as having a couple of cheeky practice games and then filling in a form anymore, oh no!) this is what I’m personally striving to be like, so I can emulate the great ones that make hockey a special event:

  • To have confidence and control without being controlling
  • To be understanding and approachable without being easily influenced
  • To know the rules but to know when to apply them
  • To be efficient without being too quick to judge
  • To be dependable without being too needy

These are only some fundamental qualities that are integral for a good umpire to possess, in my humble opinion, and my goodness, that balancing game is definitely an art.  Some umpires effortlessly showcase all this, and more, making their incredibly important role appear seamless.

I was fortunate enough to interview Carol Lewis, an international umpire for Wales who just recently retired after the EuroChampionships II here in Wales, for the BBC (you can listen back here).  The interview was conducted in Welsh, another important factor to consider when umpiring, even though the official language of hockey umpiring is English, having a Welsh speaking umpire when I’ve played here in Wales has instilled that extra slice of confidence before the game starts. It’s always good to know before hand too, in case someone decides to say an unsavoury comment about a decision!


On the pitch it’s natural to expect some adrenaline-fuelled aggression when you’re giving everything on the pitch and the piercing scream of the whistle stops your efforts instantaneously.  I asked Carol how she dealt with the ‘stick’ she inevitably received over the years, which she responded:

Yes, we have had stick over the years, well, stick because of the hockey haha, but personally it’s been pretty good.  I started off umpiring children, and coaching children, which has been a rather challenging experience because you have to be a sort of ‘mother figure’ to them as well as a coach.  Many of the girls I umpire down in South Wales are friends of mine but once you’re on the pitch they can turn to be completely different people.

I appreciate and totally understand Carol’s honesty here, and believe it’s a story that’s echoed across the globe when it comes to hockey.

Respect is a huge part of the hockey culture, and I personally believe other sports, definitely football, can learn a great deal from the approach umpires and players have towards the game and the rules that combine every element of play together.  Yes, some hot heads can ruin the game at times, where tempers flare and decisions aren’t reached mutually, but the carding system is something that works incredibly well to defuse situations and maintain that control and respect that the umpires understandably insist upon – and quite rightly so too.

So, when the new season is finally in full flow, or you’re in the middle of some pre-season friendlies now, I challenge you to take a minute to really analyse the prowess showcased by the officials.  Take a minute to show your appreciation, whether it’s a good (nothing worse than a weak, limp) handshake at the end of the game, a compliment for a good decision or just a smile.  Without them, we wouldn’t be playing, so here’s to our talented umpires.

Big thanks to Irfon Bennett for the snaps – diolch i ti!

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