The unsung stars of the show

The unsung stars of the show
When we consider what elite performance in hockey means to us, our first thought is related to the athletes. We may then consider the role of the coaches. Sometimes, we think about the team around the team: video analysts, strength and conditioning experts, assistant coaches. Rarely do we consider the other element of elite performance that is crucial to the smooth running of the game, namely the umpires.

The men and women who officiate matches also need to be at the top of their game if the match is to flow smoothly and be action-packed, exciting and full of sporting drama. Yes, athletes need to be fit, skilful and able to read the game, but so too do the people who are ensuring that the competition is played fairly, within the rules of the game and managed with the necessary amount of control.

Like the athletes and the coaches, umpires are constantly developing their knowledge and understanding. The levels of professionalism shown by umpires both within the UK and at European and world level is a source of pride for the sport. Here we meet three of these professionals and learn a little more about the men and women who control the game from the sidelines.

Karen Fynn, Rebecca Woodcock and Matt Parry are three people who are operating at the top of their game, as umpires. They all umpire at Premier League level and Rebecca now umpires at both European Hockey Federation (EHF) and International Hockey Federation (FIH) events, most recently at a Four Nations Tournament in Breda.

Umpires Woodcock and Parry
(Above, Rebecca Woodcock and Matt Parry)

Matt and Rebecca both started their umpiring journeys when they were at school. Matt began umpiring younger age groups while he was at school and then began a rapid rise through the ranks to reach Level 3 in 2015, the A* panel just recently and several international matches – junior and test events – along the way. As Matt says, “exposure to elite level hockey and tournament environments has helped me develop quicker and reach my goals faster.”
 
For Rebecca, the upward trajectory has been even steeper. The chance to miss a day’s school was the springboard to an umpiring career but Rebecca, or Bex as she is known, has made the most of every opportunity since. An invitation to a junior regional tournament from Margaret McLoughlin also provided a chance for Rebecca to connect with umpire coaches. The experience inspired her to throw herself into umpiring seriously and in 2018 she was appointed to the Women’s Premier Panel. 
 
Rebecca was also invited to a number of junior international tournaments and it was here she learnt about tournament umpiring, the differences between domestic and international umpiring, and, in her words, “the chance to meet some amazing colleagues and umpire mentors from Europe and around the world”.
 
She has recently been promoted to the FIH Advancement Panel for both indoor and outdoor hockey and has received appointments to both EHF and FIH tournaments. It was at the Four Nations in Breda that she first experienced video umpiring and now her knowledge and experience will move up another level as she has been chosen to be part of the EHF Umpires Development Programme (UDP) Group 13.

Karen Fynn Umpire
(Above, Karen Fynn)

For Karen, it was a different pathway altogether. She freely admits that, as a player at national league level, she didn’t much care for umpires. She is now the classic poacher turned gamekeeper with a rapid rise through the ranks as evidence.
 
Karen first picked up a whistle during a summer league tournament six years ago, Three years later and she had moved through the levels to join the NPUA national programme. In 2019, she was promoted to the Women’s Premier Panel and appointed to her first Premier League game.
 
While their journeys may have been along different channels, all three umpires agree on the key qualities needed to be a successful umpire. Knowledge and good interpretation of the rules, excellent communication skills and high levels of fitness are the three key qualities Matt, Rebecca and Karen identify.
 
Two additional factors that Karen stresses are composure and resilience. She says: “Keeping composed in high pressure situations can help to provide players with confidence in your decisions, and also helps you to stay as relaxed as possible so you're able to make the best decisions. No one gets it 100 per cent right. Having the resilience to listen to feedback and learn from it, but also know when to 'park it' is important for improvement.”
 
Matt also identifies the importance of building rapport with the players: “Building good rapport helps players ‘buy in’ to what you are trying to do and creates an environment that helps promote ‘good’ hockey. If the players are happy and trust you, the game is a lot easier to manage when flash points arise.”

Matt Patty Umpire
(Above, Matt Parry) 

With her international experience, Rebecca highlights the importance of appropriate communication to mirror the situation.
 
“The ability to vary your style and methods of communication depending on the game in front of you. Umpiring Wimbledon and Hampstead & Westminster at a weekend demands a very different approach to China against Japan or Belarus versus Russia! The best umpires are able to effectively get across their messages with the minimum disruption to the game.”
 
And that is one of the strongest messages that all top level umpires understand. They should never be the focus of the match but if the game goes well and everyone leaves the pitch knowing they have had an enjoyable and rewarding experience, then actually the umpires have been the stars of the show without anyone else actually realising it. 
 
If you would like to learn how to start off on your own umpiring journey, please either visit the Hockey Hub or click HERE for more information.