The biff may be on the outer but the bounce is still baffling

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SENDING the Sherrin soaring skywards can require the services of a shrink, as LAWRENCE MONEY finds out:

NEXT TIME I’m tempted to jeer the ump at the footy I’ll reflect on the sad story of John McSherry. He was a 51-year-old umpire in American National League baseball and keeled over in the first innings of an opening-day game in Cincinnati in 1996. He died a day later.

An autopsy showed he had heart disease, but they said it was the stress of the game that pushed him over the line. “He brought a lot of stress on to himself,” said umpires’ union chief Richie Phillips. “He was far and away the most intense umpire I ever knew, the way he got himself worked up before a game, especially when he was working the plate. He got to the point where he didn’t want anybody to go near him or talk to him for at least an hour before the game. He made it a more stressful situation than it had to be.”

Montage: Gordon Napier

Phillips recalled one time when he was in the umpires’ locker room before a game talking with the other umpires. “John was sitting by himself in a corner, putting on his shin guards and he broke out in a huge sweat.”

I thought of poor McSherry when the news broke about AFL umps maybe needing shrinks this season. In their case it seems the sheer stress of bouncing the ball is freaking them out.

The tricky business of bouncing the Sherrin in front of a stadium full of people – the possibility that it may not go up 90 degrees but sideways, halfway to the 50-metre line, whereupon they need to retrieve it and shame-facedly toss it up instead – this is really playing on the umpiring minds.

Senior umpire Ray Chamberlain says it caused an “extraordinary level of anxiety” last year, so much so that some of the men (and women) in white (or whatever) had taken medication to calm themselves down.

This triggered a bit of guilt in my Demons supporter group which — battle-hardened after 54 flagless seasons – is habitually critical of on-field adjudication. In fact, The Cuz, our umpiring specialist, routinely opens his match-day commentary with a loud, “Arrgh ump, he’s been doing that all day!” 30 seconds into the first quarter. Never fails to draw a laugh.

And at half-time, after dipping the beak in the amber nectar, enough time is always allowed to scan the stats – and decry the umpiring that has given the opposition 20 per cent more frees. We decided long ago that this was a plot and nothing at all to do with how our boys played. Conspiracy short and simple. Most probably Collingwood had infiltrated the umpiring squad in revenge for all those September canings we gave them in the 1950s. We have long memories.

But about that stress. Like John Merrick, umpires are men (or women), not animals. They have feelings too and I really must remember this. They are out there, heart pumping, brow perspiring, because of that bloody traditional bounce. Go on, try it yourself. Very, very difficult. However, the AFL is defiant – bouncing will continue in 2018 albeit with the help of a shrink, a fitness guru and a “bouncing coach” named Scott McLaren who will hone the squad’s technique.

The phenomenon of sporting stress – in scenarios like a clutch putt to win the US Open or a shot for goal in the last 30 seconds of a neck-and-neck grand final — – was tackled seriously in 1984 by two eggheads named Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman. They developed something called the Cognitive Appraisal Theory. Lazarus (not be confused with the Dr Who bod of the same name) defined psychological stress as “a particular relationship between the person and environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being”.

Using a “transactional model” he and Folkman were able to tabulate stress factors, helping sports people cope with their nerves. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have helped the AFL umpires. Probably because no-one ever factored in the tribal custom of bouncing a Sherrin in the Land Down Under. Who the hell thought of that crazy business anyhow?


Author: Lawrence Money

Lawrence Money has twice been named Victoria’s best newspaper columnist by the Melbourne Press Club. He wrote columns for 37 years on the Melbourne Herald, Sunday Age and daily Age — and in Royalauto and Your Sport magazines — before retiring in 2016 after a 50-year career in journalism.
He still treads the speaking circuit, does radio gigs, tweets on @lozzacash and chases a long-gone 13 golf handicap. He clings to the eternal hope that the Melbourne Demons will once again win a flag.



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