From the ‘other side’ of the whistle


Being an umpire was never part of my ‘plan’.   From the age of 11, I knew hockey would always be a part of my life. I loved playing, I loved coaching, in fact, I STILL love it. I guess when you have a passion for something, it doesn’t really matter at which level you are involved, the only thing that matters, is to still be a part of it. Well, this is the case for me.

I first held a whistle when I was 22, playing a club match and as usual the umpire for the next game was a ‘no show’. I offered to help out and before I knew it, I was told that I had ‘something’ as an umpire, something that needs to be pursued.   Yes, I knew I had something and that something, for me, was a passion for the game.

I am fortunate to have had great support in my umpiring career. It is these people who have encouraged me to just keep working at getting better, to be who I am and always to take on any opportunity that comes my way. I guess this advice is what built my foundation as an umpire, to understand that we all make mistakes, to be open to advice and even criticism.

One of the many things I have learnt over the years, and I am sure it is not the last lesson to be learnt, is that pressure will always be a part of any sport, no matter what your level of involvement is. The only difference is how you deal with these pressures and how you come back from disappointments.

One of the biggest challenges we face, as hockey umpires, is the lack of funding to help us prepare properly for tournaments. With the fast pace of the game, rules changing to make the game even faster and more ‘spectator friendly’, the demand on us is even higher to keep up with the game.   Apart from the fitness levels, we also need practice at top level to help us improve and cope with various aspects of the game and gain experience, especially at top international level. If we look at how players, teams, coaches and management plan and prepare for their tournaments, and we compare this to the reality of our own preparations, I think that as a whole, we are not doing too bad. I believe that we as umpires in hockey are operating as non-professionals within a professional sport. We all have our own careers and more often than not we take unpaid leave or annual working holidays to go to tournaments. Obviously it is our choice, and I do not think that any umpire would sacrifice family or holiday time for something which they did not enjoy or want to be a part of. When I speak of ‘struggles’ it is more about the lack of time available to manage work and family, and also keeping high standards at tournaments. Often this part of our career is overlooked and I wonder how many people are aware of how ‘little’ time we actually have to prepare for tournaments where teams spend months, if not years, preparing for.

What does our tournament preparation consist of? First of all would be to achieve and maintain an acceptable level of fitness. We also need to have sound knowledge of the rules, understand what coaches and teams are trying to achieve in their game plans, and we need to ensure that the game is managed and played within the context of the rules. It sounds easy enough to do, but what many don’t understand is the challenges within the umpiring fraternity to make sure that every umpire is exposed to ‘top level’ hockey, within their own countries, or at least have one pre tournament to prepare for a major tournament. As umpires, we are selected from different continents, different countries and as we all know, some countries lack adequate levels of hockey in order to prepare for top-level tournaments.

Argentina vs Korea

This means that we only really have the 3 or 4 days, prior to the start of a tournament, where all umpires are required to attend briefings, tournament meetings and discuss our ‘game plan’ for the tournament. Literally, we have these 3 or 4 days to make sure that every umpire, in a group of between 8 and 16 (depending on the amount of teams), is on the ‘same page’ by the time the tournament starts. It is within these 3-4 days that the real pressure starts. We do video analysis, discuss new rules and scenarios, and often leave meetings even more confused than before. My heart goes out to those umpires who are not native English speakers, those umpires who have to stay up late nights spending time translating and understanding the content of the day’s meetings.

At the start of the tournament, we all hope to get a game on the first day, just to help settle nerves and get into the ‘business’ side of things. Our pre game preparations vary from individual to individual, and more or less 2 hours before the game, we would meet and discuss our game plan for the match ahead. It is in this moment that we need to make sure we leave the changing room as a team, knowing what is expected of us, how we would deal with situations and to ensure our support for each other. After all, we are the 3rd team on the field.

In my experience I have also learnt that no matter how prepared you are for a game, to always expect the unexpected, and it is in these situations that our true strength of character is tested. Personally, I understand and can identify with player frustrations, I know how much training and planning goes into each team’s preparations for these tournaments and I probably am more critical of myself when making mistakes. For me, it is not about which game I get appointed to, but rather being grateful for every opportunity and trying to be as consistent as possible.

In my career as a trainer in Neuroscience Applied to Sports, I train athletes from various sports on both amateur and elite levels. I teach these athletes skills such as stress management, visual skills and cognitive skills, all sports related. These skills are just as important for the umpires and I have been applying them in my own training and preparations for tournaments.

Over the ears I have learnt to love umpiring, I have learnt to cope with the pressures relating to umpiring. I really love being out on the field, I am always excited to be part of the game at such a high level and I always strive to be better than my last performance. I believe we never stop learning, we never stop growing and the same as players and teams share in victory and learn to overcome disappointment, we as umpires have learnt to do the same.

Just like any elite team, athlete or coach, umpires are competitive, we want to succeed, we want to be better, we feel pressure ,we have disappointments and we want to be the best. No matter what I feel, good or bad, it is all worth it!

Michelle Joubert

FIH International Umpire

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