How the High Performance Manager of AFL umpiring has been impacted by COVID-19

Watching an AFL match, you would be taking an educated guess that the physical demands of its umpires would be up there on the world stage, but according to Robert Jackson, High Performance Manager for Umpiring, there is another sport that would hold that title.

“Much as I would love to say AFL – and I do think it is very high – I’d have to say ice hockey would likely be the most demanding,” Jackson said “The speed/skill at which officials must be able to traverse the field of play whilst not getting in the way of lightning-fast athletes… I imagine the physical conditioning demands would be very high.”  

One thing that has unexpectedly impacted the physical demands and preparation of being an AFL umpire is COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has meant from round one, there has been no group umpire training with no greater than two umpires (who must be officiating in the upcoming game) allowed to train together at any one time. No centralised venue, and, throughout the season we’ve had umpires constantly shifting all over the country via various hubs. Every single element of our preparation has been dramatically altered and is increasingly reliant on technology.

“Pre-COVID-19 we would be covering 14-15km per game with 1600m of this high-speed running, but with the reduction in the game length this season it’s sitting around 11km per game with approximately 1150m of high-speed running. Depending upon the turnaround time for the umpire, a typical week would see a field umpire run between 25-30km, with some ticking off 40-50km.”

In order to assist with the global pandemic, Catapult has expedited three customer solutions that increase the efficiency of workflow for athletes, teams, and organisations: remote athlete tracking using Catapult Vector and its new app features, a player proximity report to quantify physical incursions between athletes, and COVID-specific wellness surveys to help detect early symptoms.

Jackson uses remote monitoring extensively through this period where there is no centralised training.

“The ability for our umpires to utilise Bluetooth syncing directly to their phone and send me their data has been invaluable this season. With no centralised training, I can have 34 umpires spread across the country doing any number of different games/turnarounds/programs but all the data is fed back into me immediately after sessions are completed. Combined with OpenField, I’ve set up reporting templates to have updated summary reports for myself and coaches within seconds of sessions being completed. Without this, I would be programming ‘blind’ and have very little objective insight into the compliance of training or how the umpires are performing in both training and games.”

And how has technology helped officiating in the AFL in general?

“Everything from in-game communications between the umpires to help determine field positions, handovers from zones, ARC for score reviews and live coaching of umpires, use of VR headsets for greater decision-making practice without the requisite players/live play, along with GPS to be able to track their physical output has helped officiating in the AFL. 

“As the demands for greater and greater accuracy of decision making have increased, so has the use of technology in order to provide more specific assessment, feedback, and coaching to umpires.”

Jackson and his team have a few metrics that they rely on – “top speed (volume at or above 90% of individual top speed) along with Z4 (18-23km/hr), Z5(23km/hr+) and the sum of these two. Basic total volume distance is looked at but very much in the context of their particular weekly structure”- which are the focus in-season, while the focus during the off-season is more around cross-training and flexibility.

The off-season for umpires provides them a great opportunity to unwind, and though they are provided with a physical preparation program, there is inbuilt flexibility regarding the days they train and options to include activities such as mountain biking, surfing, stand-up paddleboard, etc. to provide a better mix of fun.”

When people seek information on the physical demands of being an AFL umpire, Jackson has four key points he tries to get across: 

“Understand that the running is a lot more than what officials in other sports would be expected to complete. Relative to the players, there is less change of direction/contact but the high-speed efforts and volume are often very similar to player average. Consider also that AFL Umpires span 20-45years of age and then you may have a greater appreciation for what the game demands of them physically in order to officiate a 360 degree game with high volumes of intermittent high-intensity efforts. And don’t neglect to consider how physically taxing the centre bounce is on the hamstrings, back, neck, and shoulders.”

What would Jackson like to see from sports technology in 5-10 years that will help his profession?

“Although in the early stages, I’d love to see a greater library of highly detailed VR simulation such that anyone could step into the ‘eyes’ of an umpire and either passively or actively (using Woodway treadmill) officiate any range of situations in the game. These may be realistic (in terms of gameplay) or unrealistic in terms of having 20x quick entries into the forward 50 so that the umpire has to make a series of rapid marking contest decisions and that can then be assessed, broken down, etc. for further teaching. 

“The ability to get greater decisions without relying on limitations of having players set up scenarios, as well as enabling us to remove the physical element to hone in on purely the cognitive aspect, would be a huge step forward.”

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