“Keep your mouth shut and listen.”
Although it sounds harsh, it might be one of the most important pieces of advice an aspiring umpire can hear. If your aim is to improve your game, the best way to do it is to seek feedback from those who are able to help you.
Good umpires who want to improve and advance can benefit from the collective umpiring wisdom that has developed over the years. We spend our hard-earned money going to clinics to improve our craft with the hope of being seen by assigners in whose conferences we aspire to work. Shouldn’t we go into the experience with the right attitude?
My career in umpiring has been laden with incredible opportunities to work with others whose experience was beyond my own, and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when I got my first shot at NCAA Division I baseball umpiring. A few of those experienced umpires had spent numerous years in professional baseball at the Triple-A minor league level and had a great deal of experience working in crews of three, whereas I had only a few years of experience at the high school level working crews of two. It was the ultimate opportunity to pick the brains of people who knew what I wanted to know and who possessed the skills that I wanted to possess.
In retrospect, while my umpiring accomplishments haven’t quite reached the level of my mentors, I took advantage of the opportunities they gave me and learned from them all that I could.
The key to that learning was listening. I know firsthand that not every umpire in that situation does listen. Some umpires have risen to a certain level of competence based on natural talent and ability without using proper techniques and mechanics. When confronted with opportunities to learn those techniques and mechanics, such as ways of manifesting their body language or positioning themselves to make the best judgments possible, a number of “good” umpires prevent themselves from becoming “great” by opposing methods to which they are unaccustomed.
Now that I am in a role where I can share what I have learned with the next generation of young umpires, I frequently find myself in the position of mentor. That has given me an interesting perspective. I now feel like I am looking at my former self when I work with less-experienced umpires who are trying to advance. What I wish for them is to benefit the same way I did. What that requires, however, is a mind-set that sets the ego aside and opens oneself up to vulnerability. It is human nature to resist criticism, even when given constructively in a setting where both the giver and receiver are voluntary participants. Yet nothing stifles my willingness to share more than excuse-making. “Yeah, but …” is not what a senior umpire wants to hear from a young umpire who is ostensibly in need of, and actively looking for, advice.
When I am working with less-experienced umpires, I almost never give unsolicited critiques. The exception is if a critical situation arose during a just completed game where additional games are to come with that same partner. In that situation, I would address the issue to ensure it was not repeated in subsequent games in that series.
In any event, an umpire who wishes to continuously improve should seek critiques from his more- experienced partners. Any request to evaluate your work shows respect to the more senior member of your crew and is likely to be well received. You can always decide later if the advice you get is worth taking.
No one person invented good umpiring mechanics or techniques. They have been developed over many years of trial and error, discussion and debate, and a willingness to pass on best practices to new generations who can attempt to improve on them. But none of that knowledge can be passed on unless the next generation of umpires is willing to listen.
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