The focus of the Belfius EuroHockey Nations Championships was of course on the players, and they delivered with aplomb. However there is a third team in every match, the umpires. These are the people who travel the length and breadth of their country, their continent and the world to ensure the game is fair and safe. One face lit up the tournament behind the whistle, the ever smiling Celine Martin-Schmets (CMS) of Belgium. The Hockey Family (THF) sat down with Celine to discuss her career, umpiring in Belgium and the event itself.
THF: Just to kick things off, could you please talk us through how you got into umpiring?
CMS: I started in Belgium when I was fifteen or sixteen because I was a little bit annoyed with the umpiring. It was always parents, they didn’t always know the rules. My mum said “If you think you are better than the others just take the whistle” so that’s what I did! I was still enjoying playing at a high level so carried that on as well. I did my first international tournament in 2007. I still play, I used to play in the second division, but I now play for our second team (at Namur) as they went up to the Honor Division (the highest division in Belgium) and it was a bit too much with umpiring, playing and a lot of practice. I love playing but it’s a lower level and less practice so I am more available for umpiring on Sundays.
THF: Do you think it helps your umpiring that you play at a high level?
CMS: Yes, perhaps not an especially high level but just to have the feeling of the game, to keep your feet in the game. On the pitch when players are arguing or asking questions maybe I can have a better relationship with them. I understand why they don’t like a rule or think it is useful.
THF: Massive tournament here in Belgium, how is it to umpire at home on this stage?
CMS: It feels great, a little bit more nervous. My mum was there for my first game and she could see me at a big tournament. Normally it’s far away and your family cannot travel to China for the Champions Trophy. It’s a little bit different; though you are at home you are not with the people you would expect. We are with the umpires, the technical team who run the table. You stay with your team, you try to catch up with people you know. It’s different!
THF: The players often bring family and friends to these tournaments, is it hard for you to be abroad or here to not have family, partners etc join you?
CMS: No for me when you go to a tournament you have your hockey family so most of the time it is more than enough. You have your roomie. You have friends, I have known Hannah (Harrison, the English umpire) for at least ten years now. You know people, your hockey family. So I don’t need my real family, of course it’s nice to speak to them though. Sometimes you need cheering or something like that. It is new that my mum is coming. Sometimes my Dad comes but normally my family don’t come as they don’t like people arguing with me or public saying “Ah bad umpire!”, they don’t like that so I understand. My brother will never come. He would be too upset with those people challenging me.
THF: What’s it like to umpire in front of that crowd, that noise?
CMS: I love it. I would like one day to be in a big stadium full of people. I think it is just amazing. I went to the Pro League in the Netherlands and it was 4000 or 5000 people cheering for their team and singing all together. It is just so good for the players. Just to be part of the game, to see people enjoying the game and singing it’s nice.
THF: I’ve heard that you have been umpiring some of the mens matches in the Honor Division, how has that been? Is it different?
CMS: So especially when you umpire in Belgium you need both men and women. You need the skills of the woman to recognise what they are doing, but also to challenge and develop you, you need the speed and skill level of the men. The more challenging games of the men, you need it to improve, especially going into this kind of tournament. Some of the teams here play high quality hockey, you need to be (slaps hands on thighs to emphasise) up there, some teams are a bit lower in quality of hockey and you need to be able to do everything. A bit of both, men and women, keeps you aware of what you are doing.
THF: EuroHockey launched the Equally Amazing campaign recently. Do you think that when you do those mens matches you are given the same respect and authority the men get?
CMS: I think in Belgium it’s equally amazing. When they see me or Laurine (Delforge) come on the pitch they don’t think “ah it’s a woman”, never. Not more respect, not less respect. You are an umpire so you are a team of umpires. Especially in Belgium I have never felt different as I am a girl doing men. And since I started it was that level since I started. I have never had any problems with any men.
THF: In England we have had Frances Bloc (retired FIH womens umpire) do a few of our club (Cambridge City) games but generally we have not had many women coming in. But actually to be honest when we saw she had been appointed we were very happy as in reality she was the best umpire we’ve ever had.
CMS: If they see you at this level then they trust you as much as the men. The more they see you the more you become another umpire in the league.
THF: I was over here for the Fan Day at White Star (a weekend of international hockey at White Star HC in Brussels). One thing I noticed was the people wearing the Belgian federation branded “Club Umpire” clothing. So I asked what it is. I understand that there is now a rule that everyone in Belgium has to become a qualified umpire, is that correct?
CMS: So we tried to have more umpires. We need more, every country needs more. The Belgian federation tried to start with the clubs. That is where the people are. They asked as many as possible for players to do the online test just for the rules. Then we ask all top teams in the club from kids to seniors to do it, we think everyone needs to know the rules. And we want club umpires. Umpires in the club who umpire their own team, but with a coach trying to help them to be ready, to move in a better position or body language. The next step is to do a test to be a national umpire. So before that it was all national, or nothing. Now we have a step in between to help club umpires develop. I think it is working well.
THF: At that event I turned up early one day and watched Louvain vs White Star in what was perhaps the third, fourth or fifth division. There was an incident where both umpires thought the ball was going off the back line so turned to reset for the next play. It hit the post and stayed in play, a striker put it into the goal. The umpires didn’t see it. They asked both teams what happened, they listened to it, and then they got the decision wrong. But no one complained, not one. In England I think the umpire would have needed a police escort! Is that normal that people are tolerant and accepting of umpires? In England, in every level from beginner to national league it can be quite scary to be an umpire. Is it different here?
CMS: We try to teach the players to be more respectful. In that situation if you show that you are human and you have the feeling of the teams then I think they accept your decision better. They ask the teams, one says black, one says white you don’t know what happened. You’re just human, so you take a decision by asking the teams so that’s why they accept it. I think we have more problems in Belgium when the umpire comes on the pitch and says “I am the best and I don’t care what you think”. In those kind of games we have a problem because the players don’t accept that. You think you are the king of the world, you don’t care about the players. We need to teach the young umpires that they are there to serve the players, not to shine, not to be the best. If we don’t see you then you have had a good game. It is not easy. If you have a bad day at work you are not mentally prepared for the game, you may make a mistake. But we have to keep in mind we are there for the players.
THF: Something you have mentioned a few times is the human side. It’s been noted by a few people that you are always smiling. How are you so happy?!
CMS: I just love what I am doing. I love being here. I love being on a hockey pitch. I have been in hockey for 28 years now. I’ve been playing since I was five. I’ve always been on a hockey pitch. I love being here, doing what I love. Always smiling. When I post on Instagram and Facebook when I post something it is with a lot of happiness and smiling. I take people with me. I get a few comments about keeping smiling and loving my sport. I am happy for myself when I am on the pitch, I am happy for my colleagues. I do what I love.
(THF and Celine took shelter from the intense sunshine in the press centre)
THF: How do you prepare for the game, psychologically? We had a straight ten minute yellow for Jones in the Wales v Scotland game just now. It surprised a few in the crowd but seemed fair. Do you talk about things before hand, look at players, prepare strategies?
CMS: The tournament does not start on Day 1. It starts months beforehand. We have to be fit, mentally fit. So I have my personal trainer on the pitch and my mental coach to be ready so when you get it wrong on video you are ready to continue. You have to know you will have a bad day on the pitch, you need to be able to step in and smile again. The preparation for the tournament with colleagues was more than six months ago. I had the Champions Trophy in November, so since last year I have been training through practice games, watching my games, the small things you do get you ready. For the tournament we have a briefing. So for the tackle you mentioned when you take someone in a physical way, it is always a ten minute yellow because it is a high penalty. That’s the rule that everyone knows. We have twenty to thirty clips where we watch together and agree what we will do. It is a long process.
THF: So this is how you ensure that consistency? You all umpire in different divisions, different countries so slightly different approaches. So that’s how you do it? You have meetings before hand to define what you will or will not be doing?
CMS: Exactly. And we have a private Facebook group where we put videos and we say it, then we all agree what we do or do not want. We keep challenging each other with clips. We can’t be in the same place six months before so we need to practice. We do the same in Belgium. When we have finals we have a meeting where we agree, so it’s the same at every level. You need to come together and also to do briefings before the game, we also do a briefing before each game. The umpires, the video umpire and the reserve umpire we agree how we want to deal with things. How we think this game may be more physical, or this one may be more skilled so we need to protect skills. I don’t know if you saw the Belgian vs Germany game (semi final) in the mens. They knew he was stopping the ball with his hands. That’s the sort of thing we do too, to check for these things and be ready. (Vincent Vanasch, Belgian goalkeeper, had seen years ago that Germany sometimes stop corners with their hands so waited to refer it at an important time)
THF: In hockey, everyone is pretty happy with how video referral works. Why do you think football is struggling so much?
CMS: Ha! It’s a difficult question. We have been using video for a long time. We have got used to it. For football it is really new. The way they are doing things, it is new and for them it is maybe “against the umpire(sic)” whereas with us it is more additional, something we love, that we want to have the correct answer. For football they think it is against them, they think they need to be the big boss on the pitch. I don’t know. In hockey we are already two people on the pitch so you have to interact with your colleague. So it is something more, but in a good way.
THF: Belgium ladies probably went into this tournament hoping to do well, certainly better than they unfortunately have done. Do you go into this supporting them, knowing that the better they do the less likely you are to feature in a medal match?
CMS: No. It’s not difficult. It’s just the way it is. If they get to the final that’s perfect. If they don’t, for us every game is important. Every game matters. In the previous game you see a win or a draw keeps you in that division, or you go down. Every game is important. A game is a game. Sometimes it is 10-0 and it is a bit boring, others the skills are better and it’s different. I have umpired Belgium way too many times in a practice game so I don’t need to have those games. When you see the men performing you are just happy for them. For the women, if they are in the semi final we are happy for them. It is a small country, we know most of the girls in the team, sometimes we have a smile for them. We have a chat, encourage each other. They have their team, we have ours, but we are still all Belgian.
(Celine taking in the games from the stands, enjoying the event)
THF: To aspiring umpires, or even active ones, what would your top tip be.
CMS: Love what you do. If you love what you do you will improve. You will strive to be better. With your passion you can do it. Without it you force yourself to go on the pitch, you don’t really like it, every time you make a wrong decision you will like it less and less. If you love the game and you are passionate that’s the important thing. Then after that you can learn, you can step in at every level. Start at 10-12, start with kids. It is a good learning for your normal life. Being an umpire and going to tournaments and dealing with things, the players and the pressure, it’s really good for your personal life. It trains you to step in, and even if you’re not happy or it’s difficult and you are stressed inside – you go on the pitch and you smile and sometimes it is the same in your job. You have to keep going, keep smiling.