Tone and Timing are Everything

April 15, 2019, 10:33 a.m. (ET)

By Steve Horgan, USA Field Field Hockey's Director of Umpiring

One of the first impressions that an umpire gives to the players, coaches and fans is when the initial whistle blows to start a match. If that whistle is too soft and airy, the impression can easily be that this umpire is nervous, uncertain and may not be confident. In contrast, if the first whistle is too loud, sharp and long it could give the impression that the umpire may be an overbearing showman and looking to dictate how the game is going to be played. The tone and timing of every whistle for the entirety of the match will be a determining factor towards the safety and flow, but ultimately the enjoyment for all participants.

Umpires are taught that their first priority is the safety of the players on the field. Therefore, the first ones to need to hear the whistle are the twenty-two between the lines. If all the players do not hear the whistle, the game can get in a state of confusion because not all players know the play has been stopped or why the play was even stopped. In recent years, players not hearing a whistle has had a bigger impact on the game since the evolution of the self-start. An even bigger issue is when one player stops playing and others do not, leading to possible injury. So, the starting point for the tone of an umpire’s whistle should be one that is certain that all players on the field, including the goalkeeper at the opposite end can hear every whistle distinctly on an umpire’s decision from inside the attacking teams circle. This accomplishes two things: one, there can be no excuse from any player that they did not hear the whistle to stop play, and two, everyone in between hears it as well.

Once the umpire’s whistle tone has it’s starting point, the emphasis of a decision and level of severity of a foul can be conveyed by increasing and decreasing the tone, but never going below the initial level established, even for simple fouls which are inherent to the game. The tone should go up for fouls that are breakdowns, physically dangerous or blatant disregards of the rules. Finding the balance in this can be quite difficult. The beginning tone of the whistle may have to be adjusted during a match, depending on crowd noise and any other factors that could impede players from knowing the game has been stopped. You can be assured that, as an umpire, if you are certain that all players on the field can hear the whistle you have a best chance of keeping the game safe and under control.

Just as important to the game is the timing of the whistle. Umpires who “get in” too early can disrupt the flow of the game and do not allow for the recognition of playing advantage. Those who are late in their indication of a foul will have trouble keeping control of a match can build a frustration among the players. Finding balance between the flow of the game and the players understanding decisions takes practice. This, along with a conscious effort on the umpire’s part to process and react in a timely manner.

Umpires are there to guide the game within the rules, not to dictate play or interfere unnecessarily. An overly harsh, sharp and instantaneous whistle will surely give an overbearing and over-controlling persona. There is a big difference between being in control and being controlling. Players want to know that the umpire can be trusted and are not looking to be “The Show.” Case and point, if the controlling umpire makes a decision too quickly instead of processing the situation in a timely manner, flow can be interrupted and it could lead to missed scoring opportunities, frustration on the part of the players, and eventually a frustrated relationship between the player and umpire. An umpire should not be afraid to take an extra moment to decide if the call must be made. As in certain situations outside the pitch, you can, and at times should digest what has happened, but still have the opportunity to whistle and stop play quickly, if necessary, keeping the game safe.

In contrast, whistling too late or allowing the play to go on too long can lead to injury and a true misunderstanding from the players as to what exactly is being called. Additionally, a lack of confidence in the umpire will develop quickly.  If the umpire is to be trusted and understood, the processing of a decision should be quick but does not have to be instantaneous. A good example would be the professional baseball umpires. This year you can notice that even a bang-bang play decision is made with a very small delay to allow for the processing of what was seen. In hockey, the time is also there to allow for processing and getting the call correct by processing not overreacting. This takes practice and a true reading of the game to be successful.

Knowing the proper application of the rules is of the utmost importance, but the whistle tone and timing are everything in the moment of the game. The proper personal professional development, self-critiquing and reading / understanding what the players are actually trying to do will go a long way toward being trusted and confident when blowing the whistle.

This article is featured in the Fall 2018 issue of FHLife magazine. To read more inspiring, knowledge-packed and fun features revolving around hockey, fitness, healthy eating and how to strengthen your game, subscribe to our quarterly publication by clicking here.