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C.7 - What You Need to Learn to be a Successful Umpire by Bob Henning

C.7 - What You Need to Learn to be a Successful Umpire  by Bob Henning

For All But a Few of Us, Officiating is a Hobby, Not Our Profession
Recognizing this will help keep your life in better balance. It takes time, hard work, and study to become a successful umpire. But an umpire must not put officiating ahead of what’s really important. Devote more time and energy to your family, work and school than to you do you’re your new hobby, officiating baseball. Be dedicated to your officiating and you can be successful.

Ninety Percent of Officiating is being a "People Person"
Know how to handle people. Remember that listening is an important skill. If you’re asked a question, answer it. Treat everyone on the field with the same respect you demand from them.

Officiating is Seldom Fair
Regardless of how much talent you possess and how hard you work, you won’t always work the big games or move up the officiating ladder. Officiating is one avocation in which sometimes, no matter how hard you try, struggles and missed opportunities will always keep you wondering just how good you can be. It’s no use obsessing about things you can’t control. No matter what level you work, you will often be criticized even though you are 100% correct. That isn’t fair, but it’s a facet of the job you must accept. Umpires must be near perfect and then continually improve.

Keep Player Safety Number One
The rules not only empower but also require umpires to penalize rough play. Even if a potentially dangerous situation is not covered by the rules, an umpire is obligated to make whatever correction is necessary to ensure player safety. That entails everything from the weather to the playing surface to the conduct of participants. In this overly litigious age, erring on the side of safety is not only the morally correct course, but the one that will keep the umpire out of court as well.

Don’t Make Excuses 
Even if you have the best possible excuse for making an error, the excuse won’t be corrected because of an alibi. Instead of wasting time and mental energy coming up with an excuse, your first course should be doing whatever the rules allow to rectify the situation. You should learn from your mistakes so you won’t make them again - or you’ll have to come up with another excuse.

Expect Criticism and Learn How to Handle It
Most comments from spectators, players, coaches, should go in one ear and out the other. Granted, it’s easier said than done. But turning a deaf ear to such criticism is crucial to maintaining focus and keeping a positive attitude. Constructive criticism from supervisors, assignors, and veteran umpires should be sought. If you solicit comments after working with a respected veteran, be prepared for what you might get. It’s possible you’ll find out you’re not as good as you think you are. Knowing how to accept constructive criticism will assist your career.

Officiating Builds Skills for a Lifetime
The qualities that make a great umpire are also qualities that make a person a good employee, student spouse, parent, or friend. Teamwork, loyalty, sacrifice, studies, decision-making, fair mindedness, accountability, and honesty are just a few of the skills that can be learned, developed, and implemented thru umpiring.

Never Let Your Signals Convey Your Emotions
Too many umpires view infractions of the rules as personal affronts. Instead of acting dispassionately, they allow their body language or voice to convey their displeasure. Your facial expression or voice should not suggest you’re happy or unhappy to be enforcing a penalty.

Understand the Intent of the Rule – Not Just the Rule
Knowing why a rule is needed will help you enforce it. In some cases, the intent is obvious (i.e. player safety). In other instances a rule is intended to ensure that neither team nor athlete is placed at an unfair disadvantage. For example, the infield fly rule is designed to prevent the defense from achieving an unfair double play.

Understand That You Will Make Mistakes
Sometimes there are dreadful mistakes, but we must accept them as an environmental hazard in an avocation that calls for us to make a multitude of split-second decisions under very stressful conditions. To expect perfection is too heavy a burden for any person to carry, and ultimately will take the joy out of officiating for even the best umpire.

Don’t Criticize Other Umpires
Under no circumstances should an umpire point out a peer’s inadequacies or offer a negative opinion about another umpire to a coach or player. Let your work and the work of others speak for itself. If an umpire you worked with or observed asks for a critique, be honest but supportive. If your opinion is not sought, don’t offer it.

Be Professional 
No matter what the level, dress the part and act the part. In umpiring, the book is judged by its cover. Soiled, aged, discolored, ill-fitting and wrinkled uniforms and accessories cast a negative impression before a pitch is thrown or the ball is put into play. Your appearance is important before and after the game. No, you don’t have to wear a tuxedo on the way to the game, but it is a good idea to dress a bit better than most people might expect.

Know Your Role
You are part of a bigger package - don’t showboat. When you need to sell a call it’s ok to give an emphatic signal. But actions designed to draw attention away from the players and onto umpires are unprofessional and unacceptable. Use the standard mechanics and signals from the Certification Manuals for the level of play you are officiating.

Be Prepared
Plan for the unexpected ...  Don’t anticipate the call, anticipate the play. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s not. If you can feel what’s coming, and adjust your position or focus to the right area, you’ll see the play better, and you’ll have a better opportunity to make the correct call. For example, good umpires know when to expect a squeeze play.

You Must Have a Reverence for the Rules
Before you can understand the spirit behind the rules, you must have an appreciation for them. That doesn’t necessarily mean knowing them verbatim. More importantly, understand how important it is to properly apply the rules. The avocation suffers when umpires ignore or misapply the rules.

Always Have a Pre-Game Meeting
Just as athletes must warm up before competing, umpires must prepare themselves for the job ahead. Even if you work with the same partner day after day, a pre-game meeting provides valuable reminders about how certain situations will be handled.

Don’t Carry Over Feelings to the Next Game
It is crucial to treat each game as a new experience. If you work a game involving a player or coach you’ve had to eject, your demeanor and actions must convey the feeling you’ve forgotten about it - even if they haven’t. Even the appearance of punishing a coach or player for something that happened in the past will taint your reputation.

Remember Where You Came From
If you’ve reached your goal, it’s easy to forget what helped you reach that pinnacle. Few umpires make it on their own. More than likely there was a mentor, an assignor, or a local association that gave you the boost you needed. You can repay that kindness by helping another budding umpire.

You Umpire Who You Are
Your officiating personality is driven by your everyday personality. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But remember that extremes are often detrimental in officiating. For example, if your job involves supervising people, remember that you can’t treat fellow umpires, players, and coaches the same way you treat your employees. If you’re in sales, you may have to tone down your personality on the field.

Have Fun … (Did I mention ‘Have fun?”)
Unfortunately, very few of us make a living officiating, and while the money is nice, we must enjoy it. So my advice to you is twofold. Have fun, and don’t be afraid to let people know you enjoy what you’re doing. If you decide to have fun while officiating (and not to be afraid to show it) you will not believe the improved response coaches, players, and other umpires have towards you, and you’ll enjoy officiating even more than you do now.

What Is the Best Way to Talk with a Coach?
One of the most difficult aspects of officiating relates to communicating with coaches. Some coaches are only interested in winning. Many, many others are in it for the love of the game. 

Umpires should strive to create the right relationship with coaches. It is erroneous for umpires to believe that coaches "like" them. Instead, umpires should strive for trust and respect from them, and leave the "liking" issue out of the equation.

In general, coaches respect umpires who are approachable and professional. In many cases, when coaches display emotions that border on unsporting behavior, they are simply venting their frustration over the poor play of their teams. Umpires should be great listeners and give the coach an ear when a complaint is legitimate. An arrogant and nonchalant attitude by an umpire ticks off a coach; thus, this behavior by an umpire must always be avoided. Instead, understand that some of their complaints may have some merit.

Hence, a good way to talk to a coach is to avoid or minimize talking at all. Listen to his/her concern and, if necessary, give a short but professional response. Also, develop a proper game face that exhibits a work ethic, a serious and business approach to fairness, but an approachable personality. A caring and concerned look on your face goes a long way toward establishing a fruitful relationship with a coach.

The key here is that new umpires must understand that there is no magic formula for developing credibility with coaches. In some cases, it may take ten years to become established and respected by coaches.

By the way, just because one coach wants you on the field does not mean that others will feel the same way. Each coach has a different and unique personality, and umpires must try to relate to him/her at that level of understanding. In other words, the approach taken with one coach may not necessarily work with another.

If a Coach Disagrees with my Calls, What Do I Do?
Some calls will require a lot of judgment or experience, and will necessarily cause criticism. Well, you wanted to be the decision maker, didn't you? That is why you, a trained umpire, are on the field - to make unbiased calls that will, nonetheless, be occasionally rejected by coaches, fans and players. Be willing to accept some of this criticism and begin to develop a little thicker skin for biased comments.

After each call, particularly the gray area ones that generate controversy, one coach will be happy and one, well, will not be so happy. Your job is to avoid worrying about how coaches will feel about your calls. Although coaches talk incessantly about consistency, they are ultimately interested in calls going "consistently" in their favor. This bias is why they try to work you!

When a coach is upset or angered about a call that he feels you missed, it is a good idea to let him/her know what you saw on the play. Describe it briefly. From your angle, you saw what you saw. You will need to find some time during the game to do this. In other words, avoid stopping the game to hold an elongated discussion on the play. You could talk forever and likely never convince a coach that you were right.

Remember that when talking with a coach, your job is not to prove that you are right and that he/she is wrong. The reason to communicate with coaches is to diffuse the situation and let them know that you care about what they saw.

What Are the Major Pet Peeves of Veteran Umpires When Describing a New Umpire?
Veteran umpires do not appreciate it when a new umpire takes the attitude that they have "arrived." Officiating is a journey where new challenges are presented each time you work an assignment.

You can also turn off a veteran by talking a lot about your so-called "war stories." Some new umpires elaborate endlessly about how they told a coach to sit down and be quiet.

Veterans understand that communication skills are not developed over night, and that only those who develop excellent professional and diplomatic qualities are going work the best schedules. Thus, it is always best to avoid talking about yourself and, instead, listen to what the veterans have to say.

If you are a great student of the game and seriously desire to excel, the veterans will recognize that. When you have befriended a veteran, your career is going to skyrocket. They will speak positively about you to the assignor and your local group members, who will further be responsible for enhancing the progress of your career.

How Important Is It That I Find a Mentor?
Climbing the officiating ladder is not something that you should tackle alone. A mentor can make a huge difference in your career. 

Successful officiating is a lot more than just getting the calls right; much of it relates to building integrity with your assignor, fellow officials and coaches. 

New umpires should find a mentor within their organization as quickly as possible. Most veteran umpires are eager to share their knowledge with someone who is willing to listen and learn.

In other words, new umpires must avoid becoming the center of attraction. Umpires who are eager to learn and maintain a positive attitude gain respect quicker.  But, those who feel that the professional level is right around the corner don't.

A good way to find a mentor is by asking a senior member of your association if you can attend their games. You might also ask if you can participate in the off-field pre-games. You can learn a lot about the art of officiating by sacrificing at least one evening per week and observing how the seasoned umpires handle difficult and real situations.

Those umpires who do not make the extra effort to learn by finding a mentor learn less, learn slower, and often do not attain their highest goals. Get a mentor. It helps!

How Do I Become "Known" As an Umpire?
One of the biggest mistakes that umpires make is to try and move up too fast. There is nothing wrong with an ambitious attitude; however, umpiring excellence is not based on ability alone, as the best umpires are those who have gained the respect of players, coaches and their assignors.

Great umpires work hard at professionalism. For example, they are reliable and willing to go the extra mile. They will always honor their assignments and will offer to work a game that is hard to fill, such as a late cancellation or one requiring long distance travel.

Coaches learn to develop trust in veteran umpires. In other words, if you have worked for a coach or he/she has seen you officiate on numerous occasions, there is a chance that they will consider you reliable.

Young umpires must avoid becoming impatient. They must understand that success in officiating is a long-term process. Moving up to the higher ranks too fast can prove catastrophic to a career.

It is best to take your time and learn as much as possible along the way. You will know when it is time to make a move.

During my First Few Seasons, Do I Need to Know "All" of the Rules?
One of the keys to becoming an excellent umpire is to have a solid knowledge of the rules. While it would be an unbelievable accomplishment to master the rules in your first year, it is unlikely that you can do it. Of course, this does not mean that you should not try.

It is also important to understand that new rules and modifications to the old rules occur every other year. Each umpire must read the entire rulebook prior to the start of the season and reference it periodically during the season. 

One of the best techniques to understanding the intent of a rule is to bounce if off other umpires. Ask questions about the rules. You will be surprised how many different interpretations a rule can have.

Try not to be a "know-it-all" when discussing rules with other umpires. Take the time to listen and see the other umpires' perspectives. You might be surprised that you had the rule all wrong!

How Important Are Mechanics to My Success in Officiating?
Mechanics refers to the positioning of the umpires when working a game. You must be knowledgeable of your area of responsibility. Many calls are missed each year because an umpire was out of position.

Studying the mechanics in the mechanics manuals is an excellent beginning for learning the basics. It is also a great idea to watch the top-rated umpires in your association. You can learn so much by observing how they cover tough plays.

If there is a situation that you need clarified, do not be afraid to ask questions. You will find that most successful umpires love to share their knowledge with aspiring members.

How Important Are Signals to My Success in Officiating?
Excellent signals are imperative to the success of your umpiring career. You must take the time to review and understand the approved signals that are detailed in the mechanics manuals.

There is no excuse for poor signals. Until the signals become automatic, you are going to have a tough time gaining confidence.

Your signals should be crisp, but not robotic. Before long you will create a style of your own.  However, do not showboat, as this is a major turnoff to coaches and creates a perception that you are arrogant and unapproachable.

One of the best pointers that new umpires must learn is that every call does not have to be sold.

In short, signals are important because it is the start to creating your style. Although you can emulate other successful umpires, you must work to establish your identity.

Is It Important That I Get Along with My Partner?
Officiating is about teamwork. You must be able to get along with the men and women who work in your crews. If your partners dislike you, it is going to be very tough (perhaps impossible) for you to be a successful umpire.

Many retiring umpires state that the camaraderie with fellow umpires is what they will miss the most. After joining the officiating community, you will notice that fellow umpires will be some of your best friends, and remain so the rest of your life.

If you are not a likeable person, if you are arrogant, conceited or act like a “know-it-all,” it is very doubtful that you will have any semblance of success as an umpire.

Umpiring games can be a very humbling experience, where you will make many mistakes. If you are a person who has a hard time accepting constructive criticism, it is better that you stay away from joining the umpiring ranks.

Getting your partners on your side is a big plus and can help your officiating career. We are a very close-knit community and word gets around fast. If you are a team player and others circulate good things about you, other umpires will look forward to working with you. The word will also get back to your assignor.

One of the best ways to get someone on your side is to support them 100% during the game. After the game, you can discuss the proper way to handle the situation. During the game, you and your partner are a team.

How Important Is Common Sense When Enforcing the Rules?
There is a sharp difference between knowing and "understanding the intent" of the rules. Yes, it is very important to know the exact wording of every rule, but that does not guarantee that you will succeed as an umpire.

Always apply common sense solutions. But if you’re not sure what to call, think about what would be fair to both teams. Many times you can solve the situation and move the game along as though nothing unusual ever happened.

What Happens If I Lose My Cool During a Game?
One of the biggest errors an umpire can make is to lose their composure. Despite the intensity of the game or the situation, umpires must remain cool and professional. For new umpires, controlling anger and emotions is quite challenging.

Umpiring is tough for many people because they are not accustomed to receiving constant criticism. If you are interested in being popular, umpiring should not be part of your life. You will receive tons of angry and irrational comments from coaches, players and fans. While you can enforce a penalty for unsportsmanlike acts from coaches and players, disciplining fans is a touchy and impossible subject.

One good way to keep your cool is to understand that the indignant comments are not personally directed at you. You are receiving the jeers because you are the umpire and everyone is looking for a scapegoat. Most players, coaches and spectators are yelling at the uniform and not you!

It is very easy to blame the umpires after a loss. You will notice that few individuals talk about the team's miscues or loss opportunities. It is expected that umpires are often blamed for a loss. However, umpires are never credited with a win.

Unless an act or comment deserves a penalty, is often best to ignore it. For example, if a coach complains about your "missed" call on the play at third base, and immediately drops the issue, there is no need to respond to him. If, however, he chases after you, it's time to act.

If you lose your cool during a game, it is important that you quickly realize it and regain composure. Avoid saying anything at a personal level, such as "You are ‘Out of Your Mind!" Once you stoop to this immature level, you lose complete control of the situation.

How Can I Avoid Making the Common Blunders?
The best way to avoid the blunders mentioned in the earlier section is to be cognizant of them. You should never feel that you have learned all there is to know about umpiring. Just when you think that you are on top of your game, something out of the ordinary brings you back to reality. Umpiring is a very challenging and humbling experience, where mastery is a journey and has few visible landmarks.

You must maintain a positive, learning attitude at all times. When you meet successful umpires, find out how they got there. Do not try to reinvent the wheel, as this will only slow down your progress.

Don't brag, talk about yourself, or overstate your position as you climb the success ladder. In short, be humble.

What Are Some of the Myths about Officiating?
As a new umpire you probably have heard about "make-up" calls. Most spectators believe that a section of our rulebook contains a chapter clearly explaining how to even out calls during the game. Some fans even think that the rulebook specifies that a make-up call should happen right after a "missed" call occurred against a team. 

In reality, 99.9% of the umpires work hard to be impartial and call the game as they see it. Many new umpires might get intimidated and make a call that should be avoided, but before long most learn that this practice does not pay. In short, the so called "make-up" calls generally occur because of coincidence.

This does not mean that umpires should not seek consistency toward both teams. If circumstances occur that causes a call to be made against one team, then an identical or very similar circumstance should ordinarily dictate the same call against the other team - even if the call is by another member of the umpiring crew. This issue of consistency is one of the more crucial aspects of umpiring that every new member must strive to grasp.

One other prevalent myth is that umpiring is for everyone. In others words, fans believe that umpiring is easy and requires little training. You will soon learn that this is not so, and that there is extensive training and development opportunities for umpires. Only those who make the required time and investments in their knowledge and skills will reach the highest level in their sport. There are no shortcuts.

Most non-umpires are surprised to know that umpires take their business very seriously. You will find that umpires are very protective of their community. The umpire fraternity is a close-knit community where we all must offer support to fellow members who suffer a mishap. Individuals who are quick to judge or criticize are foolish and fail to understand the big picture of umpiring.

How Do I Remain Unbiased?
One of the toughest factors that new umpires must overcome is intimidation. In each game that you work, you will receive constant criticism from spectators who think you are incompetent because you made a call against them. This abuse comes from fans who generally know less than 3% of the content in the rulebook, let alone the application of that 3%! So accept the ignorance of fans in general, and concentrate on doing your job to fairly call the game.

As an umpire, you will have little or no support from anyone when a spectator abuses you. This is one of the reasons why umpiring is tough. Many new umpires cannot handle the negative and unwarranted comments from fans, and so they quit. Never give up. Learn how to constantly improve your game.

To remain unbiased when working a game, you must understand that your role is to call a fair game despite the unsolicited comments from coaches, players and spectators. Your job is to apply the rule that is best for the game. Coaches and players will respect you for making the tough calls.

When you are in need of a pat in the back, seek it from a friend or fellow umpire. Coaches, players and spectators are biased when they tell you of the excellent work that you did, since they will usually do this only when they have won the game. The best compliment that an umpire can receive is one coming from the losing coach, and those come very infrequently.

How Do I Avoid Alienating My Partners?
Being liked by your partners is one of the biggest advantages you can have as an umpire. If other umpires look forward to working and hanging out with you, success in officiating will come easier. One aspect of officiating is building strong and trustworthy relationships. You must learn that officiating is a lot about helping others, and very little about the "me-me" approach.

A good way to alienate your partners is by talking incessantly about yourself and your accomplishments. Most people are not interested in how you conquered the officiating world. Instead, be a listener and ask others to tell you about how they are doing.

Are you working a big schedule this year? Do you want to continue working a big schedule? Here is how you maintain a great schedule: Avoid telling anyone that you have it. You can easily alienate your fellow umpires by telling them that you are so good as to receive a tremendous schedule of assignments.

If you are working a lot of games, everyone in the association is likely to figure it out on their own; there is no need for you to publicly announce it.

Smart umpires avoid boasting about their accomplishments. One must always understand that success is never guaranteed, and if you make enemies along the way, you might suffer a long and unabated fall from the top.

Now get out there and have the time of your life. Remember, if you’re going to be an umpire, why not be a great one. All it takes is your effort and desire to be the ‘Best That You Can Be!’

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