At the 2018 Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup, as with every other event, umpires were as vital to the successful running of the tournament as anyone else. And it is a tough ask. Many of the players and coaching staff prepare for events such as this on full-time training programmes. Others prepare as part-time athletes, but still with a significant amount of hours per week and a large support network behind them.

For umpires, much of the preparation is done solo. Weekly club matches, the occasional international test match – it’s not a lot of preparation when you are being asked to officiate matches between the very best players in the world.

Prior to the competition starting, the players gather for a few days to train together, bond with their fellow officials and discuss various issues they might encounter over the course of the event.

So to suddenly be equipped with a technology platform that offers invaluable tools to enhance performance was a real bonus at this year’s Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup London 2018. 

In this instance, the technology was provided by Scottish-based company Coach Logic, which has been working with players, coaches and umpires to develop an online coaching platform to allow, among other things, more in-depth analysis of matches.

In the case of Coach Logic and the World Cup, every game was uploaded immediately after the match was completed, it was usually available within 30 minutes. The umpires involved in the match were then asked to view the match in their own time and ‘tag’ the passages of play that they felt highlighted certain parts of their performance. 

The umpires then met: sometimes just with the umpires involved in that game, sometimes with the umpire manager and all the other umpires. The group discussed the significant actions that had been tagged and offered feedback. 

For Trinidad and Tobago umpire Ayanna McClean, the technology quickly became part of the routine: “The technology is quite user friendly, therefore once the team gets familiar with it and using it, the process to tag and quickly find plays were easy and thus were able to fit easily into our process.”

Her colleague, Scotland umpire Sarah Wilson, points out: “It’s real life and it’s real time. And by tagging specific events, it is less time-consuming than trawling through a whole heap of footage to get to a specific point.”

Among the things that the umpires reflect upon are goals, penalty corners, penalty strokes, situation management and the issuing of cards. Video referrals are also given a lot of airtime, in particular how the umpires and the players communicate about a video referral and how the final decision is communicated back to the players. “And”, added McClean with a laugh, “We talk a lot about our facial expression while a decision is being made. It is important that you look in control, even if you are feeling anxious internally.

“The technology helped with clarity and quick assessment of games, both personally, with peers and umpire manager team,” says McClean. “In the past at times there may be ambiguity in the post game debrief on situations discussed, but with the CL technology you were able to pinpoint information easily, tag it and discuss it. 

“Personally it helped me review my games and having the outside view was useful. Then I could try to implement things my game lacked.”

Another area that the umpires are interested in is the way that one umpire supports her/his colleague on the pitch. “I think using this platform great for the team,” says McClean. “We were able to go in and see the teams, review plays and situations in preparation for our next games. It allowed you to see games you were unable to attend. Some people looked at games together. I believe it was positive and encouraged conversation.”

One aspect where the technology really came into its own was in the hallowed area of an umpire’s circle. “We spend a lot of time looking at situation management,” says Wilson. “There might be a situation in the circle which is quite physical. We look at how the umpires communicate during the situation and whether it would have been appropriate for the umpire at the other end to step in at any stage, because they had a different viewing point. Looking back, you can see where the communication was good or, alternatively, where the other umpire could have called for a discussion about what was going on.”

The huge benefit for the umpires and ultimately the game, is the way that shared knowledge on this scale helps drive consistency in decision-making. The system is not limited to the umpires involved in one particular event, instead umpires and their mentors or other umpiring colleagues can view footage of matches wherever they are in the world.

This is particularly pertinent for the FIH Pro League, when umpires will be officiating top level games, very much in the public eye, but without the same support network as a major, multi-team tournament would offer. Much of the umpire management and training, currently carried out at an event, will be done remotely. Feedback will come via clips and the umpires will be responsible for analysing their games. 

One area that is likely to be greatly utilised is voice over clips. An umpire manager or mentor would select a specific clip of action and then add a voice over which relays his or her own feedback on the situation. 

If there is a downside to the use of such technology it might come in human form. The tricky question that is pertinent to all feedback is: when is enough, enough?

This is where the soft skills of the umpire managers comes into play. Knowing how much criticism an umpire can take, or realising when is a good time to offer feedback is a skill that umpire managers have been honing for years. Faced with the opportunity to give feedback based on hard, factual evidence could lead to an overuse of information. It is a danger which our umpires agree that the umpire managers must be aware. 

On the flip side, the use of video feedback can also be used to boost morale. An umpire may leave the pitch ruminating on one bad decision. A look back through the match can show numerous occasions when that same umpire played a great advantage or made a decision that was spot-on. 

As another umpire from the PAHF region, Maggie Giddens, points out however, most umpires are tough on themselves anyway and are more than aware of mistakes they have made.

“There is no hiding and sometimes it is really difficult to look at a decision you are really disappointed in,” says the USA umpire with typical honesty. “You are disappointed in yourself for making that decision but you have to face it. You can over-analyse. You can watch things too many times and dwell on it a little. But what Coach Logic does is let you see the facts. And the fact may be that you made a wrong call or you were in a bad position but you could also have done some really great things in that game as well and the video feedback shows that.”

Reflecting back on performances is an important part of the umpires’ ability to improve their performances. By seeing the same piece of action again, in cold light and away from the fast-paced pitch-side, an umpire is given time to reflect. “What was my thought process at that time?” or “Was my positioning good enough on that occasion?” This is an invaluable benefit of video playback of this nature.

It was clear throughout the World Cup in London that the feedback system was promoting a lot of discussion. Around a coffee table in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, McClean and Giddens chatted through a decision with New Zealand umpire Kelly Hudson. “We have just spent ages debating one moment in a game," says Giddens, "And it is fair to say that initially there was a split." 

The moment in question was a penalty corner during an encounter between Spain and South Africa. The debate centred on whether a player had passed the ball or if it was a shot at goal. The height of the ball was a factor. If it had been a pass, then the following shot, a deflection - which rocketed in above the backboard - was a goal; if it had been a shot, then the following deflection of the high travelling ball would have been deemed too high as that first high ‘shot at goal’ was a hit from a penalty corner. 

Just writing that explanation was tortuous; and as Trinidad and Tobago's Ayanna McClean laughingly acknowledged, that is the type of debate that rages in the head of an umpire in the preceding split-seconds as he or she is preparing to make a decision. 

There is such a clear benefit in being able to look back, trace thought processes and assess the decision-making process. There is little doubt that implementation of this type of technology is fast closing the gap between the professional players and the professionally-minded, professional behaving, but still amateur, umpires.