Becoming an umpire

This is the story of my beginning efforts to become an umpire. In a sense it is a fable, because like a fable it ends with a moral.

I live in the greater Washington DC area. The first time that I ever threw a petanque boule was when Dave Garrison, the President of my local FPUSA club, the National Capitol Club de Petanque (NCCdP), gave me a brief petanque lesson. After that, I joined the FPUSA and played with the NCCdP whenever I could — which was not as often as I would have liked because I was travelling a lot.

Not long after I started playing petanque, I got the idea of becoming a certified umpire. More precisely: I got the idea of passing the umpire certification exam. I wasn’t interested in actually umpiring games. But I thought that if I could pass the umpire certification exam, that would be a great way to be sure that I had mastered the knowledge that is required to play the game properly, even if I didn’t yet have the skills to play it well.

So I wrote to Gilles Karpowics, the FPUSA Sport Director, asking what the procedures are for becoming an umpire (arbitre). He emailed me back a copy of the rules for becoming an FPUSA umpire. One of the things that I found in the rules was this:

Once a candidate has met all applicable requirements (outlined in Section II above), he/she will receive an official Study Guide which includes the following:

  • a copy of the official rules
  • photos and descriptions of the measuring requirements
  • a copy of the 50 approved questions (without the multiple choice answers).

…The written test for club umpire will consist of 25 multiple-choice questions, drawn from a pool of 50 questions that are approved by the Sport Committee Chairman.

I expected that getting the umpire certification would be something like getting your driver’s license. You would have to pass two exams: a written exam in which you proved that you knew the rules, and a “driving test” — a hands-on exam in which you proved that you had the necessary practical skills. I had no idea what those practical skills might be. I figured that some of them would involve being able accurately to measure boule-to-jack. Perhaps others would involve being able to properly apply rules to actual situations on the ground.

My first problem was that nobody publishes a study guide to the rules. I had been following and asking questions on Mike Pegg’s “Ask the Umpire” Facebook page, and the questions and answers that I saw there made it clear that it is impossible to understand the rules simply by reading them.

So my plan was to get the list of 50 questions from Gilles, and then use them as a study guide to the rules and as a test to verify that I really understood the rules. Then after I wasn’t laughably ignorant about the rules, I would ask Dick Long, a member of NCCdP who is also a certified umpire, for advice and instruction on the hands-on aspects of being an umpire.

Along with the rules for becoming an umpire, Gilles had sent me a note: “As you will see [the procedure for becoming an umpire] starts with being sponsored by your club president who can contact me.”

And Section II.B. of the material that Gilles sent to me, said this.

B. SPECIAL DESIGNATION: Umpire in Training
*(for those with less than three years of membership):*
Any FPUSA member in good standing can become a Umpire in training by meeting the following requirements:

1. Be nominated by his/her club president or by an elected
FPUSA official (FPUSA officials must seek the concurrence of
the candidate’s club president).

2. Be confirmed by a majority of his/her regional counselors.

3. Be approved by the Chairman of the Sport Committee.

4. Take the test. The candidate must pass the measuring test and take the written test. If he/she passes the written test, he/she will become a Club Umpire upon reaching his/her third year of membership requirement automatically. If the written test was not passed, he/she will need to do so before becoming a Club Umpire.

So I sent an email message to Dave Garrison, asking him to contact Gilles on my behalf. I had no idea what the point of that was, other than (I guessed) to verify that I was indeed a member of NCCdP.

Dave wrote back to me:


Before the club nominates you for this role, I think you need to talk with Dick Long, one of our most senior players who is also an umpire of long standing. Dick can give you some sense of what’s involved in being an umpire. My own instinct is that one needs to have a number years of experience under one’s belt before taking on umpire duties.

I’ve only played in three regional tournaments and the umpires there were clearly very good players in their own right and as a result commanded immediate respect from the contestants. That can only come from playing a lot of petanque.

The rulings they were called upon to give were not so much about measurements and more about such things as getting players to stick within the allotted time lines. When tournaments set time limits for games as they often do, it is sometimes in a team’s interest to stall once ahead in hopes of running the clock out. When the umpire has to step into those situations, tensions can be quite high, especially if the game is going to determine who gets to the last rounds in a contest where the money prizes are often considerable.

I was a bit surprized by the importance that Dave attached to the ability of an umpire to command immediate respect from the players. That wasn’t something that I had expected.

In a later email Dave wrote

The application form requires that the President of your club “nominate” you. And once nominated, you can then automatically progress to umpire status once you pass the test and play for three years consecutively. My nomination then has to be approved by other FPUSA and regional reps, presumably on the strength of my nomination, making my sponsorship the equivalent of a recommendation on my part that I think you are ready to be considered for umpire status.

The form sets forth these general criteria, which I take to be the standard for a nomination:

“A good umpire candidate is a person with effective interpersonal skills, a good sense of fairness, and an aptitude for understanding and applying the rules of the game during a competition. A candidate must also have the ability to measure points accurately.”

Given that standard, I’m not yet in a position to make the nomination. I and other club members haven’t had enough experience playing with you to make a judgment on whether, among other things, you show you understand the rules and how to apply them. You may well do so but we’ve not had enough exposure to playing with you to know this.

Now that we know you have this interest, I can enlist a number of the senior, more experienced club members to help assess your level of play and understanding of the rules so they can advise me on whether you meet the criteria for the nomination. Might that work for you?

The requirement for personal familiarity with me surprized me a bit. Remember that at that time I was working with a mental model of umpire certification as being similar to getting a driver’s license. I expected to take a written and “hands-on” exam, and get my license. And nobody down at the Department of Motor Vehicles would be asking for years of familiarity with my driving skills before they would grant me my driver’s license.

On the other hand, Dave was certainly correct. It certainly was true that I had not played petanque long enough to be be even a good petanque player, let alone one with enough experience to command instant respect. And it certainly was also true that I had not played with the NCCdP long enough to allow the senior members to assess my suitability as an umpire candidate.

Later, in face-to-face conversation, Dave expanded on the thoughts that he had expressed in his email messages.

He repeated that he felt that one of the major requirements for a good umpire candidate is effective interpersonal skills. This is basically a matter of personality rather than knowledge of the rules. Dave mentioned that he knew of an umpire candidate in the past who, rather than easing tensions on the terrain, had instead aggravated them over such issues as smoking on the terrain. To deal effectively with conduct issues such as this requires diplomatic skill and a tactful personality, not just knowledge of the rules. It was this fact, he said, that led to the practice of assessing umpires in actual practice over a period of years. You really want to be sure that your candidate has the right personality for the job.

That’s why the driver’s licence model doesn’t apply to umpire certification. That’s why you can’t just study the rules, pick up the technique of using an umpire’s measure, and “test out” of umpire training.

As I said at the beginning of this essay: not long after I started playing petanque, I got the idea that becoming a certified umpire would be a great way to be sure that I had mastered the knowledge required to play the game properly. I think that that is a natural idea, and that many new petanque players come up with the same idea. Perhaps you are one of them.

The reason that I’ve written this little essay is to let you know that — actually — that isn’t such a great idea after all. I sympathize with the impulse, and I’d like to see the publication of study guides and self-tests to help new players master the rules. But mastering the rules — just mastering the rules — is not what the FPUSA umpire certification process is designed for.