You thought all was quiet on the umpiring front, didn't you?
We've had the same rules in place since the beginning of 2017 (so Sept. 1, 2016, given that the rules get released in advance of the European/UK outdoor seasons to avoid troubling them with the need to adapt mid-season). Not even a minor mid-term amendment or briefing to correct a misunderstanding (or clever rule exploitation, depending on which side of the ball you're on) with free hits inside the 5m dotted line. Nary a peep from the powers that be after the announcement of the Pro League and the cancellation of the Champions Trophy.
It was oddly quiet.
But the machine was working overtime behind the scenes preparing for the new face of international hockey. On June 8th that machine effectively took the international umpiring lists, ripped them up, and assembled a new system from the ground up, releasing the New FIH Umpiring Pathway to everyone on the umpiring committee's distribution list and the hockey public.
But is it indeed a new start? And why the massive shakeup? Let's take a little trip down the hallowed halls of history of the most exclusive of umpiring clubs to get caught up, check in with what's about to hit the hockey world in the face, and look at how this new pathway will serve the new FIH in the future.
International Umpires of Ye Olden Days
At the beginning of time, our international federation folks built a tower of umpiring. One might think the umpiring structure would resemble a pyramid, but it was always more a slender tower with a hugely broad base. From the base panel, a select number would be chosen as expressing potential for greater things and received appointments, opportunities and promotions up the ladder.
The former panels were split into five levels, three of which were more or less permanent, and two meant to be transitory in the middle of the three stable levels.
Entry level was the “international outdoor” panel. Known as having your “badge” after the adorably-antiquated embroidered FIH crest umpires would receive in the mail and, in days of yore, stitch upon the pocket of their green travel blazers. (Yes, I have a badge. No, I don’t own a green blazer.) A national umpire with “potential for FIH”, whistling at a senior international non-test event with at least three appointments, starting at a mark of 6.5 and fully achieving all categories at that level and thus attaining a mark of 7.0, would then receive said badge (and begin their search for the blazer). Whew.
For many umpires, this was also the point at which fitness standards were introduced. In the almost 15 years I was involved, the beep test (not “bleep”, there is no “l” in that sound) went from being required at the outset of each tournament, to being possible, to being required to be run at home but observed by an appropriate authority figure (parents didn't count, no matter how stern they were–sorry, Dad!). These were the historical minimum standards:
Men <30: 10.0
Women <30, Men 30-39: 9.0
Women 30-39, Men 40+: 8.0
Women 40+: 7.0
At any given time, the international panel made up over 50% of all umpires on the list. Once you got your badge, you were permanently an international umpire. However, if you were inactive for a period (3 years was the stated standard), you would no longer be considered for appointments but left to languish on the list.
From there, the panels were accessible by fully achieving the next set of 5 marks for an upgrade at the right number of tournaments at the right level. At times those numbers and tournaments were clearly set out, at other times things got a little blurry for some. However, the rule of thumb was at least two tournaments where an umpire achieved the upgrade mark. The level of tournaments went up with the panel level.
Then was the “Promising List”, one of those transitory lists that an umpire should only be on for a year or two before either being promoted or returned to the international panel after not getting the marks after sufficient opportunities (it took me 3+ years to move up, so I was either lucky, or terrible, or likely a combination of the two). Two tournaments of a “suitable standard” with fully achieved marks reaching 7.5 would get you there, with the trick often coming with what the umpiring committee considered as “suitable.”
Grade 1 or the “Crown”—you guessed it, named after the little embroidered crown crest to top the FIH crest on the blazer you didn’t have—was next and was the last purportedly permanent panel (thank you, that alliteration is awesome). Once you’d gotten there, you basically had to retire to be removed, although inactive umpires were retired in recent years more often than before—a precursor of things to come.
Next, the World Development Panel, another transitory stage, but a big one. If you’ve been playing maths in your head, you’ll know that getting those precious 8.5s put you in the upper stratosphere and the top 20ish in the world. Moreover, you would be in contention for the tier 1 events: Champions Trophies (RIP), World Cups, and Olympics. Get your 9s at top events, and you’re at the summit: the best of the best. In the dozen or so years I paid careful attention to the Lists, I only once saw an umpire demoted from the World Panel back down to the World Development Panel. To everyone’s delight who watched them, this umpire took the lump and staged a huge comeback to get back on the top. Still, it was an extraordinarily rare event, as the UC seemed to prefer not to confront performance dips or fadeaways head on but wait for the umpire to take the hint or retire themselves out of age at 47.
Why All The Change?
Three words: speed, internet and ProLeague. Don't get technical on me, I just described the old umpiring panels in excruciating detail and need a little creative latitude here. Three.
The first concept is easy and has been the centre of just about every wide-scope hockey discussion in the last ten years. Thanks to the widespread use of the aerial ball, the addition of the self-pass, and the increasing professionalism and standards of international squads amongst other factors, the entire game is 43%* faster than it was a decade ago (*completely made up, includes ageing perception factor).
The fitness standards in place were inadequate but the powers that be seemed stuck for ideas on how to increase them without potentially dislodging some “grandfathered” umpires. And although those levels could be perfectly fine for many levels of international competition, they wouldn't do the trick at the top tier.
Next up is the internet, and by that, I don't mean the series of tubes in general. Instead, it's the rapidly-increasing accessibility of streaming matches worldwide. One would say “TV”, but I think it's clear that due to trenchant players in that space combined with the dying model of the television broadcast world that we're just going to skip the little box and go straight to people's tablets and mobiles instead.
With this unprecedented visibility, umpires are being exposed more and more. Individual decisions are dissected not only by the new video referral system but by pundits with a decent video capture tool (ahem). Further, the sheer number of matches puts a particular umpire out on the stage more often than ever, fueling an impetus to evaluate them continuously and fluidly rather than as merely meeting a level and not needing further critical examination.
Last, the Pro League. Yes, that looming behemoth that most hockey fans still only have a vague impression about. Suddenly, there are a massive number of matches spread throughout the coming calendar year where umpires will be called on to take many sets of vacation days to travel halfway around the world for (possibly) two matches at a time. The pressure and scrutiny will be intense, requiring a new standard of professionalism from a larger group of umpires.
What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
So how does this new Pathway attempt to meet these challenges?
(For a summary of the changes, go to “FIH reveals new Officials development programme aligned to the growth of hockey”, June 6, 2018, http://fih.ch/news/fih-reveals-new-officials-development-programme-aligned-to-growth-of-hockey/)
At first blush, there's not a huge difference. The new International Panel looks a lot like the old one; used for continental tournaments and making up over 50% of the umpiring workforce.
Above that, the Advancement Panel is the new Promising List, targeting those umpires who have the potential to make the Elite and Pro-League Panels within three years. A few umpires were moved up from the old International panel, plumping the numbers a bit at this level.
The afore-mentioned International Elite Panel is the new Grade 1 list, for “very experienced officials that can operate at both continental and global level,” with similar names moving over.
To be appointed to the Pro-League you'd better be on the new Pro-League Panel, which happens to look a lot like the World Development Panel. And surprise! The World Panel is now a purpose-built World Cup or Olympic Panel depending on the year, which makes more sense than having World Panel umpires who don't get appointed to that top event.
I'd be remiss in not mentioning the Talent Development Panel. In its first iteration, it boasts a grand total of 2 umpires globally and is clearly meant to pull on the success of the European Hockey Federation's UDP programme. It targets umpires under the age of 25 and providing them with structured support to get them to the next level, which could be the International or Advancement Panels.
With all of the same-sameness on the surface, what's changed?
First of all, some names have moved around. The umpiring committee has taken this opportunity to shake the tree a little bit and some experienced umpires find themselves out of contention for Pro-League appointments out of the gate, while some newbies have been elevated to the Advancement status.
Secondly, something that didn't make the public announcement is the new fitness standards. It's important to note that before the release of the new Pathway the standards had been heightened and those have carried over to the new Panels. In 2017, age differentiation was abolished along with the beep test, replaced with universal levels in the yo-yo test. Women were required to reach 15.8 (1080m) and men 17.1 (1440m). These standards are even higher for those on the Pro-League Panel and current World Cup list: 19.6 for men (2280 m) and to 18.4 (1880) for women. (These are in addition to sprint and BMI tests.)
These new numbers are, in a word, staggering. The Pro-League numbers are in line with the expectations of those of some international teams for their athletes.
That may seem, on the face of it, reasonable. If you want to run with the big kids, you have to be fit enough to keep up, right? Now consider that umpires can be 10, 15, even 20 years older than the athletes they're chasing around the pitch. Or that umpires are not making full-time salaries, or even part-time wages at this vocation and need to train at international athlete intensity between their day jobs and family commitments without any of the financial support given to athletes.
The final shift is more of approach. The new panels, we're told, will be much more fluid than those from yesteryear. Umpires will move up and down with greater regularity, reflecting their current performance level at their most recent event, and likely their current fitness levels as well should these new yo-yo numbers stick. The basis of these movements will come from the new Umpire Performance Feedback form which will reflect a new, still-to-be-finalised marking structure.
All of this will amount to much more change in the status of our international umpires in the future. The new pathway accurately reflects all of the change and uncertainty reflected in the international game itself. It's an exciting time full of opportunity for many, but also a time for a reevaluation of what kind of commitments are necessary and possible under the new plan.
So no more quiet on the umpiring front. Let's go #thirdteam!
(This article appears in the Hockey World News Edition 6, June 2018)