UMPIRES' ASSOCIATION BREAKING NEW GROUND

By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

In 1994, there were exactly nine umpires for the 16 field hockey-playing schools covered by the Field Hockey Umpires' Association of central New Jersey. Games had to be moved to different days of the week to allow them to be staffed. The words "postponed due to a lack of game officials" became part of the area vernacular. Schools found themselves having to hire officials from neighboring chapters to cover all the games.

But a decade later, the association has upwards of 65 available game officials for varsity, junior varsity, and middle-school games in its area. Some of the umpires are as young as 16 years of age. There is no physical assigner; that has been taken care of through technology. In addition, video of game officiating is taken of umpires, similar to that done for NASCAR pit crews, for later review.

Welcome to the new world of field hockey umpiring, where a number of operational and technological innovations are creating a new model of how gamedays and seasons are run.

"I think what we're doing is culturally radical," says Cris Maloney of the central New Jersey umpires' organization. "We had a tough time introducing it here. People thought it would be combative or something like that, but it's been phenomenal in the way that it has advanced field hockey in this part of the state."

Maloney has had a rich life in field hockey. He wrote a paper on teaching people how to play the game in a half-hour, started the longest-running turf-only tournament in the United States (the Garden State Games), and even received coaching from former U.S. Olympic coach Vonnie Gros as an undergraduate at West Chester University.

He had been a game official for several years near his home near Princeton, N.J., but had been out of the chapter until 2001, when he was asked to come back by Suzanne Albanese, then the president of the central New Jersey umpires' organization.

"I told her what I wanted to do if I became involved," he said. "They needed someone to teach the umpiring course, within two weeks of my joining. I taught the course, and stayed with that group -- not as a board member, but as the umpire coach."

Yep, umpire coach.

"Hardly any umpire in America gets proper coaching," he says. "What you get when you introduce a coaching environment is that you get accelerated learning, and you get systemic learning, where people are interested in learning. When they meet in the middle of the field during a timeout or at halftime, they don't do it out of habit, but they do it out of desire and need."

Umpires get together for skull sessions, much like NBA referees and NFL game officials, to keep their skills sharp. That has given the group an opportunity to staff several events which are often done by college officials, such as spring 7-on-7 hockey tournaments. This is, let us remind you, a high-school chapter.

Take, for example, a tournament at Princeton University in the spring of 2005. The umpiring crew, led by Maloney, met with the captains of the teams to go over expectations, the rules about how the half-field pitch and its taped-out scoring cirles were to be judged, and how close the games would be called. Amongst the officials were several which were much younger than their peers around the country.

"There are some state associations that do not allow anyone under the age of 18 to officiate -- which is completely unnecessary, since the insurance for the state associations does not differentiate by age," Maloney says. "I started teaching 12-to-13-year-olds up to the age of 19 how to officiate. The first year, I was very proactive in inviting team captains to come to the course, and things built from there."

The chapter now works with the Spirit Eagles Group and other clubs during their weekly training sessions, integrating umpire training with the field hockey training done elsewhere at Stevens Institute of Technology.

"Bobby (Issar, the former U.S. international) made it part of the program, and they started learning how to officiate," Maloney says. "Most of the girls who are good umpires are also among the better players."

Take, for instance, Jenn Utz, Jordan Freese and Carly Boyce, who did double duty at the New Jersey Futures Tournament by playing their way into the tournament in the U-19 division, and officiating the younger divisions.

"I kind of liked the idea because it would make me a more well-rounded player," Boyce says. "Once I started reffing, I thought it was fun."

"We use coaching on the field for the younger umpires," Maloney says. "They know their coach is going to be shouting out instructions the same way the coach of a field player might encourage them or give them an idea of what they're going to do."

Some of the Maloney's younger umpires, including May-Ying Medalia and Jaclyn Gaudioso-Radvany, filled out the umpiring pool of the New Jersey Futures Tournament in the spring of 2005.

"That's a story," he says. "One of the reasons that we did great was that we held an umpire briefing before the tournament. When you have an umpire briefing, you set the stage for the tournament."

But aside from the umpire recruiting, another sizable innovation that the chapter has instituted is the use of technology. The chapter now uses, in some games, two-way wireless radios and headsets much like those used by rugby officials and cycling teams, to communicate instantly to each other in case one or the other needs assistance.

Previously, in 2003, at Maloney's urging, the association adopted TheArbiter.net to automate the process of assigning umpires to games. The site allows umpires to self-select days that they could not officiate, program in conflicts of interest (such as if an umpire's spouse works at a particular school) as well as allows school athletic directors to make changes to game schedules because of weather or other issues.

"The team can publish information about their games -- where it is, what time it is, what day it is, whether it is a varsity game, things like that -- and we publish information about our umpires," Maloney says. "When the system is ready, in concert with the teams, we pick a day where we let the machine run a round of assigning. Then, all the new games that get added after that are in a mode called 'Self-Assign,' and umpires can go in and look from day to day to see if there are new games that they can assign themselves to. All of the parameters that a human assigner would have to keep in his or her head are in use by The Arbiter."

The program, currently in use by a number of officiating chapters in many sports across the United States, allows a proper fit for schedules and personnel.

"Before, all we would get is information as to who was the home team," Maloney says. "But now, we can get information on the way team so that we know what color shirt to wear instead of bringing three shirts to the field and have to change at the field. Most importantly, we use it as a communications tool."

That's because design changes in TheArbiter.net for 2005 allow umpires to rate each other as well as for coaches to give feedback.

"At the end of the year, the appropriate people inside the chapter can provide mentoring information to the umpire, and we will be able to see things that coaches can tell us," Maloney says. "Trends begin to show up, and the transparency of that information is important over time."

Maloney's reliance on technology also includes videotape.

"We videotape training, and when we started that, we were ruffling feathers," Maloney says. "They asked, 'Why are you videotaping me?' I told them, 'We're going to talk about your game after the game.'"

Maloney also has small training videos on his website, UmpireHockey.com, which show principles about how to better officiate a game. The site also has articles, common-sense tips, and information to better inform the umpiring and playing communities.

One of the greatest instances showing the chapter's new influence came in 2004, when a group of middle-school players, selected by the chapter's umpires for their skills and sportsmanship, were chosen to be ballgirls at the final of the Mercer County Tournament.

The middle-schoolers were trained to administer the game exactly as if it was an FIH Test match, with the ball being placed on the line at the point where it goes out of bounds before retrieving the errant sphere.

During halftime, the middle-schoolers were recognized over the public address system, then they went into the stands to hand out recruitment cards showing who to contact in order to umpire.

Just another outreach tool that has a chance to be successful.

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