Growing up in Essendon, I played junior football but as I am only 168 cm tall, I thought it would be hard for me to pursue a career playing football. At 16, I saw an advertisement looking for umpires for the local Essendon District Football Competition by the Umpires Association and decided to give it a go.
remember the training vividly as the warm up was 10 laps of the Aberfeldie Athletics Club (4km) and I had already run 6/7km to get to the club! Then we did running drills, training as a running athlete. We had a little bit of coaching but in those days there wasn’t much extra vision to go by, only a few bits and pieces of video. It can be a difficult thing to coach umpires, as there are a huge number of umpires in the community, but a general lack of resources and great variety in ages (16-50 years old) to pitch to.
In my first year, I got injured with shin splints so had only 7 or 8 games, but the next year I went back and before I knew it, I was umpiring senior football at 17 years of age. I was then recommended down to the VFL Cadet Squad (as known in those days, now the AFL) so spent half the year with Essendon District and half with the Cadet Squad. Exclusively for the 40 best, up-and- coming umpires, 17 years and up, umpiring U19 football, it was held at Albert Park, and still mostly involved running but there was a little more coaching focus in the drills. In total I spent 2.5 years with the Cadet Squad and ended up being chosen for the VFL U19 Grand Final. That meant that just after I turned 21, I was promoted to the VFL Senior list.
In 1988 at 22, I had my first VFL Senior match: North Melbourne vs Carlton. It was a huge thrill but I was very nervous! There were only 6 games a weekend at that stage, and I was umpiring one, in front of 30,000 people. Carlton won that day by 2 or 3 points with one of the last kicks going through for a goal before the siren. It was a great game of footy and a huge experience. You definitely feel like a different person having umpired at that level.
I modelled myself on Glenn James, my coach through my Cadet Squad years. He was an indigenous umpire at VFL level and had umpired grand finals. I loved his style, as he had an easy way about him, great relationships with players, no frills, just made really good decisions and went about his job. Other umpires also influence you over time, as you pick up on the way they handle various situations. I liked the way the NRL referees pulled players over so they could actually talk to them directly, which I used to do sometimes. Of course, NRL is a stoppage game, so you’re able to do this a bit easier than in AFL.
Umpiring can be a difficult job as every decision is scrutinised by others – players, coaches and spectators. You can only listen and try not to get emotionally involved in their opinions, remaining steadfast in your view. You also have to have a sense of humour and be able to brush it off. You try not to take it personally, but there are times when its unavoidable so the best thing to do is to stay away from it. A good strategy is to not read the papers or listen to talkback radio.
I was one of the umpires on the ground during the infamous ‘Sirengate’ incident in 2006 between St Kilda and Fremantle, where the final siren was not heard across the ground and play carried on, resulting in a draw. I knew what happened and talked to the necessary people at the AFL. There was a whole range of circumstances that led to that particular finish. While it was a huge incident that week where everyone was speculating and giving opinions, for me, it wasn’t hard to deal with as I was confident that I knew exactly what happened.
By contrast, the events at end of 1997 were the hardest to deal with in my career. I just had been named as the All-Australian Umpire at the end of the home and away season, when a journalist rang to tell me I had been dropped for the upcoming Preliminary Final. I tried to find answers from the relevant people, but I was left in limbo. In Grand Final week, I fronted the General Manager of the AFL. There were a few things that they thought I could have handled better in the last round of the year, as well as a few other moments where it was felt I could have shown more leadership. Looking back, although difficult, I think it was fair but at the time is was pretty crushing.
MODERN ERA CHALLENGES
The decision-making today is definitely the biggest challenge for umpires! It’s what they train and aspire to do, but when a game lasts for 2 hours and 10 minutes, it’s always going to be tough. It’s a big oval with 360-degree movement and just a small change in body position can prevent you from seeing what just happened. There is a huge amount of tackling, which is a big part of umpire decision-making. There are tactics, where deciding whether to pay a free kick can change a game so we are under extreme pressure with the requirement for instantaneous decision-making.
You try not to take it personally, but there are times when its unavoidable so the best thing to do is to stay away from it.
To cope with making split-second decisions, we have now introduced skill drills at training to try and replicate as many different situations as we can. We are doing more work on the mental state and psychology this year than ever before, to get the umpires to understand that mindfulness and a clear head, as well as mental imagery, is important. We use a lot of different types of vision to coach by. There are 3 different camera angles available to us: broadcast vision, down-the- ground vision and another one that sits high on the wing to get a wide angle.
If you learn from your experiences, whether difficult or controversial, you become a better umpire overall. When you know what it feels like and you train yourself to get better at that particular area, it leads to a more positive mental state, which makes you a generally more positive decision-maker. To be an umpire in any sport with controversial decisions, you need to have a strong mental character. If you’re not mentally strong, you’re not going to last when times get tough.
TRAINING FOR THE TOP
We have a Talent ID program which is now in its third year. The managers of the program meet with each crop and take them through a psychology examination. We discuss issues with them to get a better understanding of who they are as a person, to see if they fit the bill to become an AFL umpire. Talent ID have a list of about 14 guys who are nominated at the start of the year, and another list of about 30 that they keep tabs on. The top list can change depending on who is performing well or showing significant improvement.
The top 12 are watched about 6-7 times a year, the others 3-4. The talent manager will determine how many are AFL-ready. That could be 2, 5 or none in a particular year. It all depends on how many spots we have available in the AFL umpire list as well, as there are only 32 umpires at the top level. For those at AFL level, if the performance drops then you can be delisted, but as long as performance is maintained, you can stay until retirement. We also have a duty of care program, where we have broken the 32 AFL umpires into groups of 8 and an umpire coach is assigned to each. Their duty is to know each of their umpires as closely as possible, and be there to help the them deal with any adversity they face on or off the ground. We also have a really strong leadership group of 4 field umpires nominated by their peers that have constant communication with the whole group.
After a while you get an idea of what you’ll face in a year. AFL is one of those games that when everything is going well, it’s brilliant. There’s no better sport to be involved in. But once you don’t get selected for a game, those are the difficult times. Unfortunately, there are 5 people who have to miss out every week to give others opportunities. I think that an honest approach means that they get an understanding, even if they do not agree with the particular decision. That happens often and we will come up against that fairly soon because around Rounds 7/8/9, those who have umpired every game may need to make space for some who haven’t had the same opportunities. These selection decisions are made by the coaches of which I am the head with three assistants and a high performance analyst.
Individual decisions may create heartache for the umpires at times when they’ve made a mistake, but the real difficulty for us is dealing with the fact that you might not get a game.
5 TOP TIPS FOR DEALING WITH ADVERSITY:
- Don’t get emotionally involved
- Have a support network
- Prepare for every situation
- Learn from experience – yours and others
- Cultivate a positive mental state
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!