An Epic Year with Aleisha Neumann
I want to introduce you to a dear friend of mine. You might recognise her face, if you’ve been watching any hockey lately. She’s been on TV. Twice this year in fact! She’s Australia’s golden girl (in the umpiring world at least) and is absolutely smashing goals at the moment. In fact, she is #GOALS. Meet Aleisha Neumann.
Aleisha went to her first national championships in 2009, debuted in the Australian Hockey League in 2013 and earned her FIH international badge in 2014. Since then, she’s rocketed up the international ladder, earning herself a spot on the new Pro League panel this year (read about the new FIH pathway here). This year, she realised not one, but TWO of her goals (and the goals of just about every international umpire) – umpiring at both the Commonwealth Games and the women’s World Cup.
Outside of umpiring, she also plays hockey and has represented her state (Queensland) and her country as part of the Australian Country team. She also lived in Belgium for a while, playing and coaching. Now, she lives in Townsville and, when she’s not gallivanting around the world umpiring hockey, is a secondary school teacher for her day job.
I caught up with her to chat about her epic adventures this year, and to see what’s up next for this superstar…
An Epic Year with Aleisha Neumann
What a massive year for you! When did you find out your appointments to each the Commonwealth Games and World Cup?
The appointments for the Commonwealth Games were released to us via email in May 2017, pending approval from the Commonwealth Games Federation. We were told this would take 4 weeks and we had to wait for this approval before posting or announcing our appointment to anyone. Four months later, in October, we finally got approval and were allowed to announce to the world!
For the World Cup, panels were released to Facebook in December 2017. The usual process is to receive an email from FIH, send your acceptance and then they release to media, so seeing it on Facebook was quite a shock!
What were the feelings when you got each of those emails?
It’s always exciting to be appointed to any tournament and these two were no exception. To attend the Commonwealth Games and umpire less than three hours from where I grew up meant that I had lots of family and friends come to watch 🙂
The World Cup email was a sense of relief that the Facebook post was accurate and not a joke. Having been appointed to the Commonwealth Games, I didn’t think I was even a possibility for the World Cup, so I was extremely excited, for not just a second appointment in 2018 but an appointment to one of the biggest events on the hockey calendar!
Tell us about your preparation for each of the tournaments. Was it the same or different?
Preparation was similar for both tournaments, with physical fitness having increasing importance to stay up with the game.
As panels are made up of people from all over the globe it is important that we ensure consistency amongst umpires, and to do this the umpire managers create Facebook groups in the build up to a tournament. This is a space where we share videos and have discussions around interpretations of rules and expectations from teams and players at the tournament.
The final stage of preparation is getting out on the field as much as possible. This was a little difficult with the Commonwealth Games being so early in the year/season, and living remotely in Townsville limits the variety of hockey I see…! However, I was able to attend some test matches in Perth in January, which helped immensely for Commonwealth Games. In preparation for the World Cup I both played and umpired at the Super League competition in Queensland, participating in 8 games in 2.5 days!! Hockey Australia also arranged for me to umpire at the New South Wales State Championships for my final preparation before leaving for London.
You’re a Queensland girl – how was it having a big, international tournament in your home state?
It was absolutely amazing umpiring in my backyard! It is tradition for the umpire in the group from the host country to look after the social outings and sightseeing for the umpiring panel between match days. So, as the Australian in the group it was exciting to be able to show off the beautiful Gold Coast and the Queensland way of life. It was also very special to have my family and friends come and watch me perform on the International stage. It is rare to have someone in the crowd calling your name in support, so that was really special 🙂
Talk us through the Commonwealth Games…
I was lucky enough to be on the opening game of the hockey competition at the Commonwealth Games, which was an upset win with Wales coming over the top of India. I was involved in both on field and video duties during the Games, so I was relatively busy each day.
On the first rest day I took the international crew to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where they saw all our native animals, a snake show, a crocodile show and we even had individual photos holding a koala! Someone asked why I was getting a photo too, so I had to explain that we don’t actually have koalas in our backyards everyday either…!
As the competition got to the finals series I umpired a semi-final between New Zealand and England, with England losing in shoot-outs. During this game I was the first person to test the ‘Umpire Cam’ which was a small camera above your ear. This added a few more packs to our radio vest but created a wonderful view for the TV audience at home and it quickly became a permanent addition for the following games. I finished the tournament with the Bronze Medal game between England and India, the second time I had umpired these two teams during the Commonwealth Games but with a very different result. After losing the pool game 2-1 and the semi the match prior, England came out with a vengeance winning 6-0.
Post medal ceremony we were introduced to Prince Edward, who had awarded medals, and we had a short conversation with him about the championship. It was a special moment to meet and speak with royalty, before we were allowed to stand on the podium for photos and receive our own commemorative medallions!
The two disappointments from the Games were, firstly, with match allocations – they only occurred a day or so in advance, so it was difficult to get to other sporting events and experience the rest of the Games. I was lucky enough to see one other event, the marathon, which actually ran under our balconies on the beachfront! The second disappointment was only receiving tickets to the closing ceremony. Half of all the technical officials for the Games were invited to the opening ceremony and half to the closing, with hockey being the later.
And how was your World Cup experience?
The World Cup was absolutely amazing. The set up by England Hockey was outstanding and showcased the best women’s hockey in the world on a spectacular stage! Even the Welcome Reception was held in Tower Bridge above the city street with spectacular views of the city at sunset.
I umpired the second game of Day One, which was England’s first game of the tournament against India (that’s right, this would be the third time I umpired these two countries in three months!). The build-up was amazing – a Red Arrows fly over, flames and fireworks as we entered the pitch and an audience of 10,500 people singing ‘God Save the Queen’… it was enough to give you goose bumps in the moment, and every time I’ve thought about it since! India scored the opening goal, after the use of my own video referral, which was a dampener for the home crowd until England equalised in the last quarter and the roar of 10,500 people drowned out the whistle!
The most challenging part of a tournament of this scale is actually managing your time away from the pitch. With 15 umpires, we were told in our pre-tournament brief that it mathematically worked out to be 4.8 games each, over 16 days of the tournament. During the week there were 2 matches a day, requiring 8 officials, being played at 6 and 8 pm. This created a lot of down time, which we filled with time at the gym, exploring different cafés, seeing some of the sights and a few movies.
I was involved in a variety of games and finished my tournament with a knockout match between Argentina and New Zealand. Pre-tournament, many would have predicted that this would be a semi-final match and it didn’t disappoint! There was a unique goal from a penalty stroke, awarded after a team referral for the goal keeper’s glove preventing a goal. (“Isn’t that normal?” I hear you say? The problem was, the glove was no longer on the hand of the keeper as it was knocked off in the initial save!). I had run 3.8km by half time and it didn’t slow down in the second half, with Argentina scoring a second goal to secure the game. It was a great game and, not that I knew it at the time, the end to my on field duties for the tournament.
I was then able to enjoy supporting my colleagues, and watched some unpredictable results as the sixteenth ranked Ireland marched their way to a World Cup final! While they lost in the end to a Dutch team, who left everyone in their wake, the Irish team were just thrilled to be in the contest. I have never seen a happier loser in a final! And with Spain (11th in the world at the time) claiming the Bronze, it truly was a tournament of upsets.
As always the hardest part of the tournament was saying goodbye to the rest of the umpires as we all departed back to our home countries, but I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive and inclusive team to work with.
How were the experiences different for you as an umpire? A big, multi-sport event vs. one of the pinnacle tournaments of our sport…
The actual process for us as officials didn’t differ that greatly between the events. Our main aim is to deliver a world class event for the players and spectators, a process that works the same in both tournament layouts. While the atmosphere was very different, I couldn’t say that one was better than the other.
The standard of hockey at the Commonwealth Games had a little more variation with lowered ranked teams participating, however, the lower ranked teams really stepped up at the World Cup with the bottom two teams both progressing into the Quarter Finals. This made every match important and no result predictable for the teams playing.
How was your experience in the video box at each event?
The video umpire position is one that I really enjoy, but it is completely different at every tournament.
At the Commonwealth Games we were able to see the pitch from a box overlooking the pitch on the 23m line at one end of the field. At the World Cup we were in the Hawke Eye van in the Media Compound, outside the stadium.
At the Commonwealth Games we were alone in the box speaking directly to the Director over a radio for camera angles and speed of replays. In London, the Hawke Eye crew that were sitting next to us in the van were able to control this directly.
The other major difference is that we had a camera on us at the World Cup for the TV audience to be able to see us during the conversation of a referral.
Both setups have positives and negatives. While seeing the pitch allows you to see all aspects of what’s happening on the pitch and get a real feel for the game, talking to the Director over the radio sometimes makes it difficult to find the right angle quickly. Time is of the essence with the expectation that you quickly come to the right decision without delaying the game too much.
There is also a very specific language that we are asked to use when responding back to the on field referee so there is a little bit of pressure that comes with being in that position. However, it is something that I thoroughly enjoy, as you are able to participate in the game and help the umpiring team eliminate major errors from the game and achieve the correct result for the teams on the pitch.
What have you learnt from each of the experiences?
Every day, every game, at an international event is a learning experience. From working with new colleagues, to managing different styles of play, languages and cultures on the field, there is always something new.
An experience that was new for me at both tournaments this year was finding MY umpiring moments and decisions topics of discussion pre-tournament, and at moments during the tournaments as well. As a relatively new umpire to this level on the international scene, I had always watched clips of other people so this was definitely something new for me!
While it is great when everyone is discussing a great advantage goal or effective management of a break down tackle, it is a different feeling when the discussion is about a mistake you made or a contentious decision. These moments are discussed in a learning context internally amongst the umpiring group at a tournament, but that’s not always the case when discussed globally through social media platforms and umpiring groups.
Being able to separate yourself from the decision and discussion has been my biggest area for growth this year.
After such a big year, what’s next for you? (Some rest I hope!)
At the moment I am just focusing on the end of the local hockey and Australian Rules football (AFL) seasons. My local teams have wrapped up the minor premiership in both codes, so we are now preparing for a, hopefully, successful finals run. I’m then umpiring at the Australian Hockey League in October, and then some rest and relaxation before the start of the 2019 Pro League!
And finally, what are your top tips to up-and-coming umpires?
- If you can, keep playing – having a sense for the game and an understanding of what the players are trying to achieve can help a lot to play effective advantage or reposition yourself early to stay ahead of the play.
- You must be game fit – the players work hard on their fitness to play with speed, and we must work just as hard to keep up with them. Most people know the rules, but if you aren’t in a position to see the foul then you cannot make the correct decision!
- Enjoy the task and commit to the job – umpiring is a great opportunity to meet new people and participate in our game in a unique way. Always give your best effort and take the game seriously, just as the players do. As one of Australia’s best umpires, Lisa Roach, said to me “No matter the gender, age or division, for the two teams on the field, theirs is the most important game of the day. Give it the respect that they deserve”.
Thanks so much Aleisha! All the best for the coming tournaments. We look forward to seeing you in action in the Pro League!
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