How To Build a Great Umpire Program
By Kevin Kohn
The game of Baseball is not just a National pastime, it is often used as
a metaphor to help explain life lessons in simple, yet profound ways to both young and old alike. Many people enjoy participating in this sport by either watching it being played, playing in it themselves, introducing their children to it and encouraging them to play it from as early as four years old. It is enjoyed by so many because of its challenging and dynamic nature.
Within youth sports, Baseball is in a league of its own. Unlike sports such as Soccer, Baseball requires a significant investment in time, resources, and volunteers. For a League to be successful you need many things. Among these are managers, coaches, field preparation crews, scorekeepers, team organizers, fundraising specialists, and of course, umpires.
Out of all of these, the most difficult for Leagues to figure out is the Umpire program. Lots of people have good advice to share but there are few resources that describe a systemic approach to building a successful program. This document does just that.
Creating an Umpire Program
Having spent more than 15 years in Little League, (and still there today), I created an umpire program that:
- Provides enough umpires for all games
- Majority are adults
- Is well trained
- Perpetuates without me years after my service as UIC
I have been asked many times by leagues in and around my district how I have been so successful in developing this program which has gained such notoriety. Let me start by giving credit where credit is due. I rubbed shoulders with amazing people who had volunteered their time and energy over many years in Little League programs across the Western United States and shared with me their ‘lessons learned’ from so much experience.
I took the best ideas and experiences of these volunteers and tried to formulate a coherent program that would address the chronic shortage of Umpire volunteers and increase the competency and quality of the Umpire program in our League. The program is now going on six years and is thriving. I share these lessons in the hopes that it benefits other Leagues and enhances the baseball experience for as many kids as possible.
Board of Directors Must Share a Common Goal
The first and most important thing a League needs for this program to work is to be 100% united behind each aspect of this program. That means the League needs to be in full support, from the Board of Directors down through the team managers. Individual members of the Board may be tempted to edit one or two of the points out of the program. I can testify from my own experience that if this happens, the program will not succeed and produce all the results you need it to. You may have an incrementally better program but it will not grow stronger every year and last beyond any single individual’s term of service to the League.
This may require some selling by the UIC with a promise to the Board of specific outcomes if they stay the course. When I sold this program to the Board, I promised them that in five years, they would have all the quality umpires they need for the complete season. At that time, our UIC of 5 years quit his position and stopped umpiring. We had a total of 8 umpires for a League with over 600 kids. He averaged 120 games each season.
How do you replace a person like that? When I hear of programs that have a few umpires doing a large percentage of the League’s games, all I can think of is how much risk that introduces to the overall program. One of those volunteers gets sick or quits and you are up a proverbial creek without a paddle.
Remember, for the most part, you are dealing with volunteers. Each volunteer is motivated differently. The worst thing you can do is spend all the time and energy training an umpire and then burn them out by demanding they do more games than they have time or energy for. Those people quit and you are back at square one. You need to find what motivates your umpires and give them more of that thing (within reason).
A common mistake Leagues make is to assume when someone volunteers to be an umpire and you give them a couple days of training that they are ready and able to umpire any game. Can you imagine taking one of the kids in your community who never played baseball, give them a few hours of lessons and send them out in a game? Would you expect them to perform well? Of course not. That’s why coaches hold so many practices each week and long before the season starts.
The same principle applies to Umpire training. A volunteer needs to be placed in a position where he will be most likely to succeed. This success builds confidence. Confidence is a key, (and necessary) ingredient in all good umpires. That contributes to a good experience and, like magic, they continue to volunteer.
The Umpire in Chief (UIC)
One of the most crucial roles on any baseball league Board of Directors is the Umpire in Chief (UIC). This individual is responsible for recruiting either volunteers or those willing to be paid to umpire each game played. They train umpires. They remediate conflict. They participate in disciplinary committees. They ensure all games are resourced properly. As the chief umpire, the UIC needs to:
- Be the authority on the rules of the game.
- Organize the effort to recruit, train and maintain umpires
- Helping volunteers to learn, understand and acquire the correct umpire equipment
- Responsible for overseeing umpire assignments to games
- Tirelessly advocate in behalf of volunteer umpires through the league to managers, fans, and Board of Directors
No game is able to even begin without an umpire in place. The criticality of this role in any baseball program can’t be understated. I have heard some call the umpires the “third team” on the field. I don’t subscribe to that concept but I think what is implied with such statements is that the game doesn’t happen without umpires. The umpires and the overall program need to be vigorously supported at every level in the league. The role of the umpire is very involved. These unsung heroes are required to:
- Learn the rules of the game
- Learn unique local rules which often differ depending on age/level being played
- Learn a complex series of mechanics which require precise timing and location to properly see and judge a baseball play
- Judiciously interact with rabid fans, coaches and sometimes players in a way that diffuses contention and facilitates a pleasant and enjoyable experience that is fair for both teams
- Make sure the playing conditions are safe for all involved
Umpire Program Challenges
There is a chronic shortage of umpires in every league wherever the game is played. I have yet to find a league who says they have enough umpires to staff all their games. Some UIC’s are creative in where they find umpire recruits. Some use postings in community advertisements. Some recruit teenage kids from nearby schools and pay them per game. Some require that every team produce volunteers who can fill the umpire role.
A good UIC will do all of the above. Properly incentivizing umpires is key to maintaining a pool of umpires. Just like the kids playing baseball require many years of practice and training to play the game effectively, umpires require many years of training and practice to become good at this role. Retention of these umpires should receive considerable focus as they become the backbone of any umpire program. They train the incoming pool of new recruits while passing on invaluable case studies from the real life experience not easily captured in training manuals.
In my quest to turn a flailing umpire program around, I gathered information from literally hundreds of UIC’s across the United States over many years. I put together a program of what I consider the best of what I have learned from these dedicated and skilled individuals. I built a program literally from scratch based on these principles that persists and thrives to this day.
Other leagues often ask me to come and teach them how we accomplished such a program. I enjoy sharing these details because they were freely shared with me by these great leaders. I compile the foundational principles of what I learned in this forum.
Ideal Number of Games For Each Umpire
As I mentioned earlier, the propensity for most leagues when they are starved for umpires is to ask the existing umpires to do more games. However well intentioned, this is the exact opposite of what you should do. This perpetuates a cycle of burnout among your most valuable commodity. They will then quit leaving you with a further depleted pool to work from and so on. What you need is a way to recruit consistent numbers of umpires. Then you need your experienced umpires training these new recruits. You have time for neither activity when you just pile more games on an already exhausted volunteer.
So what is the right number of games to expect a volunteer umpire to do in a season? In my program, we try to get between 4-8 games from each umpire each season. We also reimburse any parent their dues for one of their kids if they umpire 12 games. You may wonder where that number comes from so let me explain.
We run roughly 16 games in a regular season. Based on our statistics, volunteers average 6-7 games in a season. Our more seasoned umpires will do 8-10 games. There is always a small pool of umpires who enjoy it so much they do 20-40 games. Lastly, Junior umpires can fill in the remaining gaps in game coverage. Then there is post-season.
By the time post-season/Tournaments roll around, most people are burnt out for the year. Our decent umpires have between 2-5 games left before they qualify for a refund of dues. They sign up for post-season games to get across the 12 game threshold. That does more to fill our staffing holes in post-season when we need umpires desperately than any other incentive.
Destroy the Criticism Culture At All Costs
Nothing destroys Umpire programs faster than fostering, enabling or allowing umpire criticism. Go ahead and ask every person who said no to volunteering to umpire in your League. I bet you get the response “I don’t want to take the abuse” or something close to that. Nothing kills the heart of a volunteer faster than the feeling that their sacrifice is not appreciated.
Games are competitive by nature. Competition brings out the best and worst in people. In Little League baseball, it is usually the parents who ruin the experience. They set the tone and the example for the kids. Parents often reflect the tone and example of the team’s manager. If he loses his cool or shows disgust with an umpire’s call, so will the parents. That is when the frenzy starts to get out of hand.
From my experience, (I will try to be kind here), Managers and parents have not learned the rules as well as they should. Then, they may allow themselves to become upset at a call made by an umpire without fully understanding the rule themselves. My personal favorite is when a parent in the stands is arguing the umpire’s strike zone. Do they really think they can see the ball in relation to the plate better from the stands than the person standing 3 feet away? I can go on and on.
This is where the Board needs to be completely unified. They cannot allow or foster a culture where criticism and ridicule are directed toward the umpire. When that happens, the kids learn it is OK to excuse themselves based on someone else’s “bad call.” I for one do not want my kids learning that life lesson. I think we would all rather have our kids learn that we take the good with the bad and do the best we can with the experiences we are given in life.
Now do umpires make mistakes? Of course they do. And why is that surprising? How many times do MLB umpires make mistakes? If it happens on a professional level, then why do we expect more from a volunteer parent in Little League?
It is not the mistake we should focus on but the reaction to it that matters most for a healthy program. For example, you should ask if there is a process in place to address mistakes. Are the fans, managers and players aware of what that process is? In my experience, people don’t expect perfection. People expect to be treated fairly. If they know a process exists they can appeal to for relief from an unfair situation, either real or perceived, then contention is dramatically reduced and the experience improves dramatically. There should be a process for handling the following scenarios:
- Poorly trained umpires. This can be broken down into three categories:
- Poorly executed or understood mechanics
- Insufficient rules understanding
- Ineffective game management
- Managers who do not display the qualities we are trying to teach the kids through this sport. Do they know the rules? Do they unfairly exploit umpires or the other team? Do they incite their fans to anger? Do they degrade the kids they purport to help?
- Fans who act inappropriately. This includes berating umpires, kids or managers, etc..
Addressing Poorly Trained Umpires
Our process for addressing poorly trained umpires includes having the managers note specific instances in the game where the umpire did not exemplify adequately one of the three points above. Then, the UIC or umpire training coordinator meets with the umpire and talks through the situation in a polite and respectful manner. They get the umpire’s insight into the referenced incident and use it as a training moment.
The outcome can vary from this experience. You could learn that the manager completely mis-read the incident and now you need to refer them to the Coaching Coordinator or train them yourself. Or, the umpire was in fact wrong and they learned from the experience. Or, in unusual circumstances, the umpire refuses the training opportunity and rejects attempts from others to help them improve. In this last case you may need to make a decision to not field that person again to avoid damaging your program.
Addressing Sub-standard Managers
With regards to Managers, this is more of a Board discussion. If it is determined that a manager is doing any of the things listed, action should be taken to speak with them and get a course correction. If that does not work, they need to be replaced immediately. I will ask two rhetorical questions: 1.) Is any one manager worth the contention and infighting within the league and Board? 2.) Are they worth your hard work in recruiting, training and fielding competent volunteers? Yes, your umpires will refuse to take bad manager’s games or worse quit altogether. No bad manager is worth the loss of a willing volunteer.
Always prioritize willing volunteers over bad managers. Why? Because bad managers won’t be around long term. Eventually they will anger enough parents, other managers or authority figures in the league and they will be either dissatisfied and leave or confronted and thrown out.
Addressing Unruly Fans
Lastly, with regard to unruly Fans the answer is simple. Don’t allow it. You would be surprised how often the Fans are just feeding off of a manager’s example. Managers set the tone for the team. Have the manager address the fan behavior and hold them accountable for it.
I have umpired games where the Fan behavior was absolutely appalling. In one particularly bad situation where it was getting out of control, I realized I needed to pause things to get people to behave like normal people again. Just remember that the word “Fan” comes from the word Fanatic. Sometimes when in groups in a competitive environment, normal, rational and kind people undergo some weird transition into nasty, mean and intolerant beasts. Sometimes in these cases you need to pause things for people to come down from that and remember they are actually humans.
What I did to “pause” things as an umpire was I called “TIME OUT” to everyone. I pointed at the pitcher on the mound and his entire team and told them to get into the dugout. I did the same with the batter. This shocked the fans from both teams. I then addressed the managers in a loud voice everyone in the stands could hear that the game will not proceed until we get control of the situation. Then I waited in front of Home Plate for a moment. The Managers, equally taken aback, began addressing their Fans appealing for calm and the game continued in a much better situation.
Start Your Volunteer Umpires Early
It goes without saying that umpiring a game at a 5-7 year old level of play is far less imposing than games later on. We encourage parents to begin umpiring as soon as their young ones enter the league.
Our program allows for parents to umpire their own kids games. If there is anything controversial about my program, that is it. Those who disagree cite examples of umpires giving their kids preferential strike zones, etc. What I say to that is, this is Little League. Maybe when we go to tournaments I may suggest they don’t do their own kids games. But during regular season I am a huge fan of parents doing their kids games. There are a few practical reasons for my stance.
First, parents are already at the field. Expecting people to volunteer to come to the field an extra day/time to umpire another team’s game does not work. They are already at the field all week attending practices and games for their own kids. This is an easier sell to ask them to participate in a game they were already planning to attend.
Second, they know all the families in the stands. There is an element of pride in doing a good job when you know and regularly interact with the people whose kid you are calling out (or safe). It is also harder for those in the stands to complain about the umpiring because they become painfully aware they chose not to sacrifice to umpire themselves but that person did.
Third, get the parents when they are new because they will stay with the program the longest. When your volunteers are expected to umpire their 6 or 7-year-old’s game, it is far less intense of an experience. A mistake doesn’t carry as much weight. Most people at that level are inexperienced and don’t really know what to expect. Umpiring that game is far more forgiving than a game of much older kids. As they grow with their kids in the program, they become better umpires. As a result, your numbers of umpires and their quality increase over time.
If managers or the Board still have aversions to having parents umpire their own kids games, you can do what I did. I gave the manager the option to replace any umpire assigned to their game under the condition that they find a replacement. You don’t want to give yourself more work than you already have by making accommodations for every contingency. Give the managers the option but make it their job to remediate it. That usually alleviates the concern while keeping the program manageable from an administration standpoint.
We require each team to produce two (2) adult umpires to attend mechanics training and rules clinic. We require it as soon as their kids are at a level where they begin keeping score (typically Single A level) all the way through Majors (12-year-olds). They will be the umpires at the games for that season. The home team takes the plate assignment and the visiting team takes base. If someone is sick, theoretically you have 4 adult umpires between the two teams at the game to fill in for the sick umpire.
When parents begin umpiring this early, by the time their kid’s games become competitive, (around 10-12-years-old), they will have 3-5 years of experience umpiring already. These will be your pool of experienced umpires. They will assist the new umpires each year and will begin taking upper division games.
Make Sure to Train Your Umpires
We hold multiple types of training for our volunteers each year. 2-3 weeks before games begin for the season we hold a 2-4 hour Rules Clinic where we cover the most common rules and address questions. We make sure we allow time for plenty of questions during this time and we share experiences in the field that bring it home to the listener.
We then set aside a Saturday for a Mechanics Clinic. What is unique about our approach is that we shut down the league for this. Nobody is allowed to practice or play on any field during this time. This is done to drive attendance. You will find you have many willing to go but because they have coaching obligations they will miss your training. Don’t create a conflict here. Just close down all other options and you will be well rewarded for your sacrifice by the quality umpires you produce through this training.
Not everyone can make this mechanics training. Many want to but life gets in the way. For those individuals, and the ones who do attend, I created short video clips documenting the mechanic for each aspect we cover in the training. This pays dividends I honestly did not expect when I came up with the idea. I find that many people refer back to the videos, even while they are waiting for their game to start to make sure they got the mechanic down pat. I list our videos down below.
Lastly, it is important to have a regular touch base with your umpires to answer questions, touch on things not covered in your trainings, etc. This can be an online chat forum or a monthly meet up for Pizza. This builds camaraderie among your umpires, (making it more enjoyable for them through healthy fellowshipping) and making them more competent in their role.
Junior Umpire Program
Fostering a Junior Umpire program is easy and smart. Often you will find that the best umpires you have are kids. Many like to be at the fields and are already there because of practice or games they are playing in. Also, kids want to earn money. Why not make this resource work for you? I have found that kids gain tremendous personal growth through umpiring. They have an opportunity to develop skills and perspectives on life they would not have otherwise learned for many years.
I start in our league with 11-year-olds through 18-year-olds. These get paid a flat wage depending on division umpired and whether they take the Plate or Base. I make the rate compelling for the divisions and skill level I need the most help in. You will find that you will have 5 or 10 kids who stand out above all your other umpires. I will possibly guarantee these kids a little more per hour if they promise to take so many games. Other leagues will be advertising as well so make sure these guys get a buck or two more than the others offer and they will stay with you.
I show up at tryouts at the beginning of the year with one or two of my stand out youth umpires. I then stand them in front of the kids waiting for their tryouts and describe the umpire program, how cool it is and how they can make money. I then have their peer describe what it is like. I then pass out a clipboard for them to sign up and let peer pressure do the rest. Works like a charm!
Reward Your Umpires
Rewarding your umpires is critical. You will be amazed at how simple it is to provide adequate rewards. We reward umpires by the following:
- Give free food to umpires after each game from the snack bar
- Give preference of games to your high performers. This can be tournaments, recommendations for Post Season games, first dibs at certain division games, etc.
- Give your umpires training assignments to teach what they learned or have demonstrated proficiency in
- Send them off to special or preferential training sessions set up around the local area or State
- Implement a badging system where they get patches to sew on their uniform for every 50 game milestone or notable tournaments they umpired
- Have your umpires stand and get recognized at Opening and Closing ceremonies
- Provide umpire gear to those doing a lot of games
Make Sure to Properly Equip Your Umpire Crew
It is important that you give your volunteer umpires the best tips on what gear to wear and how to minimize discomfort and potential injury. There are thousands of products out there and as many opinions on what works well so I will not address those here. I will say that Umpire gear can get pricey for the individual and the League. I will add a shameless plug here for a tool I found that can help get you the biggest bang for your buck. Input your product already found or search for it new in https://www.CircleAny.com and the tool will search all retailers for it. If it is still too expensive, you tell the tool to alert you when it finds the best price on it.
Hopefully you have found some insight into what makes a good umpire program. I have learned from experience that this does work. If followed, it becomes the culture of the league and will live on long after you are gone. Just make sure your Board understands that strict adherence to these principles are what makes it successful and the program will work amazingly well for years to come.
The key points to summarize from above for a successful umpire program are the following:
Recruiting Each team provides two (2) adult volunteers to provide umpire services to the league. If two volunteers are not found, the team managers/coaches will act as the adult volunteers providing umpire services or find volunteers or arrange payment to those willing and able to provide these services.
Mandated Umpiring Single A (A) division mandates parents to umpire their own games. Double A (AA) division home team will provide one (1) of the umpires for each game. No rule shall dictate that an adult should not umpire their own family member’s game. The Umpire in Chief or Umpire training committee shall determine the skill level of each umpire and determine, when appropriate, to restrict the division at which an individual can umpire.
Compensation After a volunteer parent umpires 12 games in the same season (either regular season or post season tournament games), they shall receive reimbursement for one of their player’s (for whom they paid membership dues) regular season dues upon request.
Training Two formal training events are to be held prior to the beginning of regular season play:
1.) Mechanics training
2.) Rules clinic
All umpires are required to attend these trainings or to have attended these trainings in the past. All Managers/Coaches of teams beginning at Single A (A) through Seniors division are required to attend the Rules training and have access to the Little League rule book.
Junior Umpires The Board of Directors will organize a program of Junior Umpires defined as umpires aged 11-17 and who are generally recruited from among the league players, participants, or community members. These individuals must satisfactorily complete both the Mechanics and Rules training and be approved by the Umpire in Chief. Junior Umpires are generally compensated monetarily at a fixed fee per game umpired through direct deposit into a bank account determined by the Junior Umpire or by the most convenient method to the Treasurer. Compensation amounts will be determined at the beginning of each season by the Umpire in Chief in consultation with the Treasurer and League President.
This is the spreadsheet I distributed to the League officers as a summary of the program
- No recruiting can begin before LLL Board of Directors agree to completely support each umpire.
- Each team provides two (2) adults to mechanics training. (If no volunteers present themselves, the two team coaches are the umpires).
- Single A division, (roughly 6-year-old’s), is a perpetual feeder pool for the Umpire program. This is crucial to the longevity and perpetuation of a healthy program. Parental umpiring is mandatory for own game.
- Junior Umpire recruitment happens at tryouts for the 11-year-olds and above.
- Every 12 games umpired by an Adult gets 1 child’s playing fees reimbursed.
- League Training Day. No League activities, practices, games, etc. can be scheduled on the day of umpire training. This maximizes attendance.
- A dedicated training day for Adults. Youth can be trained at same time but in seperate groups.
- One-hour bi-weekly rules/mechanic training spotlight
- Rules Clinic mandatory attendance for umpires and managers/coaches
- Umpire training videos. 5 minute short video segments reviewing the mechanics training principles are located at:
|Umpire Training Intro||Balks||Base: Calls, Positions|
|Base: Pause, Read, React||Base: Runner Misses||Base: Working Area|
|How To Do a Plate Meeting||Base: Umpire Teamwork||Base: Obstruction|
|Plate: Positions & Respons.||Fair Ball, Foul Ball||Checking Equip.|
- Snack Shack provides food and drink for working umpires
- Trainer status (Each proficient umpire is moved into a pool of umpire trainers).
- Preferred Game slots provided to major contributors to the program.
- Any umpire can volunteer for any game at their skill level. Managers can elect to replace umpires scheduled to do their game as long as they arrange a replacement that is acceptable to both teams
- Teams not contributing to umpire slots will be required to schedule umpires for their own games.
Coverage-Team Umpires. Coaches/Parents supply umpire. Home team provides Plate ump, Visiting team provides Base ump.
Reasoning-This is the pool from which future umpires in the league will emerge. Setting the right culture here is critical to feeding the program with umpires. Adults learn here the proper treatment of umpires.
Coverage-2-3 umpires. 1 Adult Maximum.
Reasoning-Inexperienced umpires are trained by league trainers here. We graduate umpires from here to next level divisions.