The England Hockey Federation released a very interesting article about the challenge’s umpires come across during the games in this new era of sports and their personal perspectives over the past few Covid-impacted months.
For Janice, who lives in the North of England where Covid-19 hit particularly hard in the Autumn, local restrictions meant she was unable to umpire on the national circuit from mid-October. However, the England Hockey League’s loss has been the local North West leagues’ gain. Faced with the tier system of restrictions, the local leagues were quick to restructure so, until the second lockdown, Janice was able to support her own club, Knutsford, and umpire locally.
David has been less sanguine about the disruption. This was to be his first full season on the Premier Panel since he was promoted in December 2019. With a good pre-season under his belt, David was raring to get going in the top flight of hockey. A year since his promotion and he has umpired only three games in the Premier Division.
When they have been able to umpire both Janice and David, along with every other umpire, have had to make some necessary changes to their pre and post-match rituals. They go to every match ready changed, as most clubs have closed changing facilities.
For David, who lives in Cumbria, this has caused some challenges.
“We are advised to travel changed for the game, but this has been very difficult to do, I live in Cumbria and it is normally a long drive to get to a game especially at Premier Division level, so driving those long distances wearing my game gear is uncomfortable at best. We get to a game one and a half hours before in order to prepare. However, during the autumn and winter months with the British weather, we don’t generally have somewhere nice to have a coffee and begin our preparations with the teams and our colleagues.”
“This has made it a lot harder, but we still ensure we bring the same level of professionalism to every game. It has been really hard traveling home in our umpire gear, especially after a wet game, but we want to ensure that we service the game in the best way possible so that does mean sometimes driving home in a damp hoodie, or a swift change in the car park.”
The other changes to the umpiring role are mostly around match protocols: the umpires do the coin toss rather than the players, there is no hand-shaking, and social distancing is observed as much as possible. As Janice says: “I personally think everyone has done extremely well in keeping to the instructions.”
Like the players, umpires have needed to take extra steps to ensure they are physically and mentally ready to step back onto the pitch once action resumes.
“Physically I’ve kept myself fit and active,” says Janice. “I set myself a goal to try and do a minimum of 10,000 steps a day and I’ve been pretty successful with that. There have been just eight days when I’ve not hit that and four of those were because I got a nasty cold – thanks to my daughter going back to school.
“Obviously I had to pass my bleep test for NPUA which meant over the summer I was running regularly. Just the other week I tested myself and ran the Cooper test within the designated time.”
David has also been working hard to maintain his fitness. As well as completing two runs a week, he created a home gym in the garage. For mental stimulation he took part in the Charity BENs virtual British Grand Prix, doing 190 miles in 60 days to raise money for charity. Something he says was good for his mental well-being.
“Mentally I think everyone will have had ups and downs during this whole period,” says Janice. “We are social creatures and having had our activities limited has been very difficult at times. We’ve been lucky in terms of being an outdoor sport so we have received clear instructions. Of course, some habits are ingrained, and “don’t touch the ball” has become a new catchphrase.”
Prior to the start of the 2020-21 season, as with any other year, umpires were able to get up to speed with the game via pre-season friendlies. Janice is hopeful that, despite the challenges posed by the different tier restrictions, there will be a chance to umpire some friendly matches before the league resume.
Aside from the ability to get some match play through friendly games, the umpiring fraternity also uses digital technology to keep in touch with both each other and the sport. David helped deliver an England Hockey online training session around Young Umpire Development which, he says, was a great experience.
For the umpires themselves the digital world, particularly WhatsApp, has been an invaluable source of support.
“We have our WhatsApp groups, which we use to share news, clips and get opinions,” says Janice. “It’s very supportive and non-judgemental so when things happen during a game it’s good to share to get other people’s input, advice, and opinions.
“I think every game gives us the opportunity to learn. Either it went really well and I’ll use that again, or that wasn’t great so how can I improve that going forward?”
One big source of learning and development is the feedback umpires receive from coaches after matches. Janice says one of the best coaches in this respect was former Head Coach at Birmingham University, Phil Gooderham.
“I always want to improve my umpiring and coaches can help here. Getting constructive comments and criticism is important. Phil Gooderham from Birmingham University was always so helpful in this regard. He was very balanced and fair, so we all used to listen to him.
“I think the WhatsApp group is of good support when we aren’t at games. We are all supportive of each other on the pitch as well, probably because we’ve known each other for a long time and umpire together regularly.”
As the hockey community prepares itself to spring back into action, it is clear from talking to these two committed individuals that the third team is more than ready for the first whistle to sound.