In one of the first games I ever umpired, I was out there as base umpire with no training, no experience. I was just trying to help out. I played the game and thought I knew the rules, so how hard could it be?
With R1, the batter hit a grounder to the shortstop. Sure that the shortstop didn't have time to make a play at second, I quite confidently focused all my attention on first base. I waited. The throw never came.
Now the players were all looking at me, wanting a call at second base. Was he safe or out, Ump? I had no clue. Clearly, I needed to improve if I wanted to continue to umpire.
So that's today's question: How do you improve as an umpire?
Sure, there are several obvious answers. Go to a clinic or training session. Study the rule book. And gain experience through doing lots and lots of games. All good and practical advice.
But there are other ways as well, which we'll explore today.
1. Ask "What if?" and then find the answers.
Often, in my early years of umpiring, I would see something happen, and realize that if it happened a bit differently, I didn't know what the rule would be on that. So later I would look in the rule book until I found an answer, or ask a veteran umpire who knew the rule.
For example, with a runner on first a fielder threw wildly to first and the ball hit the fence. Well, what if the ball had stuck in the fence? Do I know the rule for that? Am I sure? I better look it up later, in case it ever happens to me.
Remember, this was before the Internet, and I still don't trust the Internet for baseball rules to this day. If you are going to look things up on the Internet, make sure you find a reliable, trusted source, not someguywhousedtoumpire.com.
To help you, don't be afraid to carry a small notebook and pen in your back pocket, to write down questions in case you forget. I've seen several high-level umpires use this method, so it's OK for you as well.
2. Pick the right people
You need a mentor. Or, even better, mentors. If you have one mentor, he or she may not always be available, or they may not be particularly knowledgeable about the subject matter you're asking about.
One umpire, for example, might be really knowledgeable about improving your strike zone, but maybe they're not so good with people. So you need another mentor for game management questions. And maybe another for positioning.
3. Work on the right things
You might find you enjoy learning more and more about improving your plate stance. After all, you get a lot of compliments on it. So it's fun to keep focusing on it. But meanwhile, you're not sure about fly ball responsibility with runners on base. That takes work, and it takes you outside your comfort zone, to look like you don't know what you're doing.
That's why you need to work on the fly ball stuff and not the plate stance stuff. Get outside your comfort zone. Work on what you NEED to improve, not the stuff you're already comfortable with.
Even better, ask one - or more -of those aforementioned mentors what they think you need to work on. They're looking at you with a neutral eye and will only want what's best for you. They're not interested in your comfort zone - they're interested in making you a better umpire, whatever it takes.
4. Don't be afraid to fail
This one is tough for me. I'm OK on my timing for strikes, but I make the "ball" call too quickly, especially the close ones. So to improve on this, I have to focus on slowing down, taking my time. Which might mean I will sometimes take too long to make the call, which could result in unpleasant feedback from players, coaches, and fans.
But if it's important enough, you have to fix it, whatever it takes. Ideally, you could try fixing your problems at a practice or scrimmage game. But those are few and far between. Often we have to work on our issues in actual games.
So try to look at the long-term, not the short-term. Sure, you might get some comments if you take too long to make a "ball" call (or whatever your issue is you're working on), but tell yourself that in the long term, fixing it now - and enduring the pushback - will make you a better umpire for years to come.
5. Keep your eyes, ears, and mind, open
I have learned much about umpiring through books. But not only books about umpiring - books about leadership, self-help, business, mentoring, novels, etc.
And I have learned from younger, beginning umpires. I've learned about umpiring from my wife, who knows nothing about baseball. I've learned from my boss at a newspaper, I've learned from my washer repairman, and from players.
And I've learned from experienced umpires who weren't talking to me, but teaching me by example - good and bad - because I was always watching and listening.
You never know where something is going to come from that you can use to help you improve as an umpire, and that's why you need to always be ready to hear it or see it.
6. Work hard
Like the saying goes, the harder I work, the luckier I get. Where can you be more tenacious? Where are you relaxing too much? What part of your game are you most worried about? What part of your game are your mentors most worried about? Have you even asked them?
Are you passing up on that lower-level game because you think you're too experienced for that level any more? Maybe you should reconsider. Maybe that would be a good place for you to work on stuff, when you're umpiring a level well within your comfort zone. Or maybe you should pass on a couple plate games so you can work on base stuff more for a while.
Whatever it is, keep working. It may be tough and uncomfortable, and it may take longer than you thought it would, but the payoff is worth it. There's nothing quite as satisfying as feeling confident on an issue you used to not know much about.
7. A goal is a dream with a deadline
Sorry to be cliched, but it's true. You have to be able to quantify your goals. When are you going to work on this? What's your deadline? How can you measure it?
It's one thing to say "I need a better strike zone."
But when are you going to do it? How are you going to do it? How are you going to measure it? Find out the answers to those questions and you'll be on your way.
No doubt there are other ways to work on your weaker issues and to see improvement. What are some of your best tips?
Do you have some thoughts on this week's blogs or any of the other ones? Then please, let us know through the comments section or on our Facebook page. Look on Facebook for "Umpire Mentors" or "Umpire Mentors Group." And please, join our Facebook pages.
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This Week's Quotes That Apply To Umpiring
“I never feel that I'm at my best. I feel I still have room to improve. I still set goals for myself to strive for . . . I'm never really too complacent with myself or with what I've achieved."
- Michael Jordan
“I'm going to try to keep getting better."
- Tiger Woods
"Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do. Anything that improves your own talents."
- Warren Buffett