Five Stages of Umpiring

This posting is mostly a summary of the material from an article in Referee Magazine, July 2016, written by George Hammond.


Moving up as a softball umpire to the next levels of officiating is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Some officials progress faster through the stages than others. Some reach a plateau and find it difficult to advance to the next stage while others might move methodically from one stage to the another. One way of looking at the stages of officiating is to divide them into the “5 M’s.”

Meandering (Happy to Be Here)

With possibly the exception of those few people who start umpiring for the money rather than the passion, most new umpires want to learn as much as possible about their new avocation. New officials have to desire to improve and want to move up to the next levels and accept the fact that they will start at the lower levels. They will need to do a lot of studying and attending clinics. The most successful umpires will also spend time at this stage talking to more experienced umpires to learn the things you cannot get from rule books and mechanics manuals, especially how to deal with coaches, players and spectators.
For new umpires to succeed they need to work as many games as possible, and try to have experienced umpires as their partners. Assigners play a big role in this early phase of a new umpire, as well as the umpire’s organization’s training staff.

Measuring (I Want to Stay Here)
The second stage of officiating could also be named “survival mode.” Some umpires may be afraid to make mistakes. Now that they have had some game experience and have participated in close calls, rule interpretations, arguments, and good and bad mechanics, it is important for them to start doing some serious bookwork – rule books, mechanics manuals, reading articles from Referee magazine, using any and all resources available to them – for example, our Locker Room.
Hopefully somewhere during the first stage an assigner or fellow umpire has suggested to the new official that he or she should pick a mentor for themselves. Again, an assigner or training person can be a big help in this direction. An umpire who wants to rise through the levels will want feedback – both positive and negative. They will address questions and concerns to their fellow umpires as well as their mentor. It is at this stage that an umpire will realize how important the intangible things are:
  • The intent of the rule versus the written rule
  • Looking and being professional at all times – on and off the field
  • Learning from mistakes and making a firm resolution to not repeat it
  • Communication with coaches
  • Handling hostile situations and learning how to diffuse them

Momentum (I Belong Here)

In this stage umpires being to think about where they would like to go with their officiating. They should set a specific goal, such as working Community College state finals, D1 postseason games, or even the Women’s College World Series. They can do this because if they have successfully moved through the first two stages, they begin to feel confident in their abilities and comfortable at this level. Most good officials are in the momentum stage as it does not take them long to progress through the meandering and measuring stages.
A big step in this stage is to seek out advice from the umpires they know who are already in the next stage. They should try to select a small group of umpires to talk to regularly and ask them to watch some of their games when possible. He or she should let them critique his or her work which will most likely result in getting helpful tips and suggestions on things that, perhaps, the umpire is not aware of what they are doing, on not doing.
They should also consider watching as many Division 1 softball games as possible – local or on TV, and picking out a few umpires that they like and watch them closely. They will pick out things which they can incorporate into their own game, being aware that they need to consider their strengths and weaknesses in doing so.
At this stage most umpires will start getting games closer and closer to the top-level games, including some games which include a team which is consistently at the top of the top level. As mentioned above, one of the key intangibles is communications. It is at this stage that the up-and-coming umpires will learn valuable lessons for successfully communicating with these coaches at the top levels. They can ask their group of mentors:
What are the buzz words you use with coaches?
How come they always seem to calm a coach down or de-escalate a situation?
How do they handle a coach who is close to be at the ejection stage?
And any and all techniques they have used to improve their communications

Mountaintop (I Want to Works as Many “Big Games” As I Can)

When an official believes that he or she has reached this stage, a good self-question is: does my assigner think this also? Many officials think they are ready and prepared for this level but an honest conversation with an assigner will help, otherwise frustration may set in. The best way to approach this stage: be patient and view each one of your assignments as if it is a championship or Division 1 game.
The time it takes to get to the highest level of officiating in any sport varies due to a number of factors, some of which are beyond the control of the official. Moving forward to this level involves competition with other officials. It is a fact that there are only a limited number of available assignments at the higher levels; an official may be almost as good, or even as good as the officials at this higher level. But assigners will rarely replace an established official who is still doing the job well with a newer official.
Work on continuing to do the best you can at the level you are working. It is better to arrive on the mountaintop a little late than too early. An official who arrives too early may be put into a situation they cannot handle leading to an experience which is a detriment to their forward advancement. Unfortunately, this has happened to some in all sports.
For an official who sees himself or herself as seemingly stuck in the momentum stage, patience is the best tool to handle it. Recognize that if you truly deserve to be at the mountaintop your time will come. By making it known that you think you deserve to be working the big games but are not, you could be doing damage to your reputation in the eyes of assigners and fellow officials. Adversity can be good. Take a deep breath and do a really solid self-assessment.

Mentoring (I Want to Give Back to Officiating)

It may be difficult for some officials, when they reach this last stage, to completely walk away from officiating. A great way for them to stay involved is to become an instructor, evaluator, observer or mentor to new officials.
It is also important to remind these officials that it is never too old to learn. When they become and instructor, evaluator, observor or mentor, they will be surprised to discover that they will continue to learn new ways of looking at things or doing things. It is also important for them to listen to the younger and newer officials because they have a different take on rules and knowledge of the game. Some may have played the game recently and can provide valuable input as to how the game is evolving for players and coaches.
Some assigners and associations require their senior officials to do one or multiple of the items mentioned above.