Let's Do a Better Job of Training Umpires

Umpiring a polo game well is more difficult that playing polo. There, I said it! Maybe I should say it again: umpiring a polo game well is more difficult than playing polo.

Here is another point (also my opinion, of course): playing a polo game or match (as opposed to a practice game) without a good umpire is not very much fun.

Put these two things together, and you could be tempted to conclude that playing a fun polo game can be a rare thing indeed. Maybe that's not completely true – other factors are so often involved (such as the size of the crowd watching, maybe?) The bottom line, however, is that umpiring has a huge impact on one's enjoyment of the game.

With the stakes so high, you would think that polo clubs make a very big effort to provide good umpires at their games. You'd be wrong. You'd also think that there exists a very sophisticated program to help interested players learn umpiring skills. You'd be wrong again. (Not a good day for you!)

No one has come up with a systematic way to produce good umpires. You are told to learn the rules, and then to go umpire games until you get good at it. Not the most efficient way to proceed. Also, not much fun for the players or the would-be umpires.

Learning the rules, we can all do. You have to read them, for sure, but that is not enough. Many important things are left unsaid, or are unclear. But you can attend umpire clinics and have those in-the-know explain the rules. Then, one day, they all start to make sense. You now know the rules of polo – well done! You're thinking you might want to umpire a game now. Good luck with that. There is a huge gap between knowing the rules and actually making that split-second decision in a fast game and blowing the whistle. Frankly, there is also a precipice between understanding lines drawn on an erasable white board and live horses moving about without leaving a trail drawn in magic marker behind them.

The thought processes of experienced and inexperienced umpires are very different. They can be compared to the difference between a kid who has memorized his multiplication table and one who has not. When asked to multiply two numbers, the first kid will immediately give out the answer from memory, without having to think. The other will have to actually do some math to figure out the answer -- a process that will take considerably longer. The experienced umpire blows the whistle based on memorized (and easily recognized) patterns he has seen many times before. The inexperienced umpire has to actually analyze the situation he sees, but unfortunately he only has a split second to do it. Not an easy proposition.

So, how can you get any good at this? Well, if you are fortunate, you will find a knowledgeable player/umpire who will take you under his wing and teach you by having you umpire with him. He will explain to you why he blew the whistle, or why you should not have blown the whistle on a particular play (this would be done after each play and not at the end of the chukker, when everything in your mind has become a blur). He will help you develop your field judgment. But you are not quite that fortunate, are you? If you are like the vast majority of players/umpires out there, you do not have such a mentor. You have to go out there by yourself (or someone else who is as incompetent as you) and take it on the chin until you get better, somehow, by magic.

There currently is a pretty good program to train umpires improve their field judgment, but this program does little for those who are still in the process of making the transition from understanding the rules as written to applying them in practice.

So here is a request to the USPA, followed by a proposal. First, the request : Please find a way to help those interested in developing the field judgment necessary to become competent umpires! It will make polo across the country so much more enjoyable. My proposal : Why not use technology to help students develop field judgment without ruining the games for actual players? I can imagine a classroom filled with students who have already passed a written test establishing their knowledge of the rules. They are all watching a game of polo on a large screen. All of the actions of the actual game umpires have been edited out from the video – this is a game in which the whistle is never blown. Each student can punch a button when he or she sees a foul. The software keeps track of each instance in which a student records a foul and prepares a cumulative report for the instructor. For each play, the instructor gets a list of the students who "blew the whistle" and those who did not. The instructor has many games to chose from – beginner level games all the way to high goal games. Students can learn by "umpiring" dozens of games – and getting the instructor's comments and explanations – before ever putting on a striped shirt.

Fantasy? Maybe I am hoping for too much. This is just a proposal, and there are many more ways to proceed. What I do know is that we have a big issue here, and no one seems to be proposing a solution.

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