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Belgium umpiring lacking women and young talents

The number of women umpiring in Belgium is low despite the overall number continuing to develop at high speed, thanks to the slave labour provided daily by the ARBH and its two leagues, which must support and supervise their members, offer quality arbitration to as many people as possible. However, it remains complicated to recruit new talents, especially on the female side. Out of 256 national officials (referees, referee coaches and match officers) registered at the Federation, there are only 19 women or just over 7%. A startling figure when we practically reach parity in terms of members. “We are in these proportions at all levels despite all the work already in place for several years,” admits, a bit annoyed, Laurent Colemonts, the boss of Belgian arbitration. “But we do not manage to find real explanations for this phenomenon. The 2 Leagues have put in place many initiatives to remedy this, but the health crisis has cut them off. In an ideal world, we want to achieve a balance between men and women, but that seems utopian”.

Belgian Umpire Delforge umpiring Belgium v Great Britain women
BRUSSEL FIH Pro League Belgium v Great Britain Picture: Umpire DELFORGE Laurine (BEL) WORLDSPORTPICS COPYRIGHT FRANK UIJLENBROEK

However, at the level of the leagues, we are working hard to train new talents. We offer a stimulating and supervising training course to increase the number of club umpires (91 on the French-speaking side with 10 to 15% of women). “It is especially necessary to demystify the side complicated and sure of oneself which certain referees can convey”, engages for his part Alexandre Plaisant, the refereeing manager of the French-speaking hockey League. “We have to break the clichés and move forward. We must show that it is accessible to everyone regardless of age or gender. In our training program, we emphasise the basics, like knowing the rules, having the proper whistle and positioning”.

The exceptional career of Laurine Delforge, who can be considered one of the best umpires in the world and the more recent emergence of Namuroise Céline Martin-Schmets is, therefore, the tree that hides the forest. Sebastien Michielsen explains, international referee, in charge of the development of refereeing for the Dutch-speaking League. “Men are often more convinced that they are right even when they are wrong. For their part, women are more thoughtful, and they have less tendency to put themselves forward. I’m convinced that a lot of girls have the skills and the talent to get started, but they don’t dare. The best example is Pauline Cuypers, who, at 22, gave up her helmet and gaiters to fully engage in arbitration with great success. She dares, and she questions herself when necessary”.

An audit, published in 2010, had already highlighted the lack of umpires, the little respect shown towards them, their level too low compared to developments in the sport, and, finally, the lack of resources made available to them. Ten years later, the situation has changed a lot. The strategy is based on three main axes:

  • Attracting more women to arbitration
  • Improving the quality of coaching
  • Increasing the general physical level

For Laurent Colemonts, hockey is undoubtedly on the right track. But we must not relax, and we must, above all, continue to invest. “There are more and more players and teams, and we have to support this upward curve with new referees. The new clubs quickly realised that they had to put in place an efficient refereeing structure. This is not always the case with more historic clubs. How many new referees would be needed in the future? It isn’t easy to quantify. We always want as much as possible. But roughly speaking, our goal is to bring out 40 to 60 new national referees each season. Today, we proclaim 25, but, at the same time, we lose 20”.

The general level has improved with the training circuit set up, and there is a growing enthusiasm for devoting oneself to refereeing. And suppose the health crisis has shattered the positive dynamic of recent years. In that case, recovery will be essential to continue the work accomplished and generate new vocations, focusing on coaching, support and training in clubs.

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