Michelle Phippard may have an intimidating on-court presence, but the All Australian Umpire Award recipient loves to have a laugh and a chat. Get her talking about her beloved netball and she’ll talk your ear off. Michelle’s passion and prowess for umpiring the game will now take her to Liverpool where she will officiate at her third Netball World Cup.
In 2001 Michelle umpired her first international netball match and has since gone on to umpire over 100 international test matches and counting. The majority of her international umpiring experience came from her time working abroad as a legal consultant for the United Nations.
“I lived overseas from 2003 till 2011” Michelle said. “I lived in Switzerland and the US. While I was in Switzerland, I was very fortunate that Netball England were very supportive, and I was involved in their top-level competitions over there. They had a competition called Super Cup which has now evolved to their Super League. England Netball were very supportive in allocating me and bringing me over. I was very fortunate that they paid for me to come over which allowed me to keep my hand in netball.”
When talking of her time in Switzerland, the pride is clear in Michelle’s voice. “I was also involved a lot with netball in Switzerland. It’s continuing to grow there mainly through international schools and ex-pats.Thereare some really dedicated people and they get some amazing support from Netball Europe and England Netball in particular.”
“I’m actually an honorary life member of Netball Switzerland. I coached the first Swiss national team to ever win an international game. That was kind of exciting. Netball Europe have their main section, then a developmental section. I was the coach for the developmental Swiss team. We had gone the year before and it had been a bit of a disaster and so we did a lot more work the second time around to make sure they were prepared because I think the first time was a bit of a shock. And, now I think they won the whole thing this year.”
Her time working in the US also afforded Michelle the opportunity to work closely with Jamaican netball. “One of the nice things about working in the US was I got to go to the Caribbean a lot. So, I did quite a lot in Jamaica when I was there, including developmental work with Caribbean umpires. It was interesting because they had a lot of different understandings of the rules.”
Jamaica’s relaxed, celebratory appreciation of netball flowed over to the streets of Brooklyn where Michelle was also a player and umpire. The stark contrast to the netball world Michelle knew in Australia was evident. “It was like being in Jamaica. There were food carts with jerk chicken, and rice and peas and corn soup and people coming from church in their Sunday best to watch people play. A lot of ex-national players who were internationals in their youth are still playing there, so the standard was quite high. It was very different and quite exciting to do.”
The whole experience of umpiring different nations, seeing different netballing structures, facilities and standards of competition has helped grow Michelle’s appreciation for netball in Australia. She said, “There are people who say ‘I only get to umpire this’, or, ‘I only get to play this’, whereas I think, ‘Wow, this is better than what some other people could only dream of’. We are very spoilt in Australia.”
Michelle’s experiences abroad have also given her a greater understanding of how to communicate with the athletes who may not understand her. Michelle acknowledges that her short and sharp ‘Aussie’ style English may be part of the problem. She notes, “The Caribbean countries speak English, but it isn’t our style of English in a lot of ways.”
This understanding of communication barriers will help Michelle when she takes to the court of day one of the Vitality Netball World Cup. She explained, “Umpiring players from countries where English isn’t their first language is difficult. And, sometimes, it may be our accent. So, it is about tuning into what they are saying, what we are saying and even how quickly we speak or our short hand.”
“Ultimately, it is about effective communication. You want to give the players the best chance to understand you and the best chance to adapt to what you are wanting them to do and you need to be prepared to help them find the best way to do it.”
Regardless of the communication hitches she may have to overcome during the tournament, Michelle is still excited to see the calibre of competition at the Vitality Netball World Cup. Her build up to the tournament has been just as long as any of those competing.
Having had a few niggling injuries over the years, including an Achilles tendon injury which threatened to keep her from umpiring the 2015 Netball World Cup, Michelle has slightly adjusted her studious training schedule to ensure her body can handle the rigors of the World Cup daily umpiring schedule.
Like all Suncorp Super Netball umpires, Michelle regularly trains in the gym to ensure she isn’t huffing and puffing along the sideline each match. A regular week for these umpires in terms of exercise could include (and as is the case for Michelle, does include) six days a week of gym training. These sessions include core strengthening, cross training, strength and conditioning training and agility training as well as prehab work to stave off possible injuries. If time allows, she also adds court work training sessions with Suncorp Super Netball teams.
Almost as important as physical training is the mental preparation for a tournament. Umpires need to maintain their focus for a full sixty minutes (if not longer in the case of extra time), analyse their game, correct anything which may need it , then switch off. And then do it again the next day and the next and the day after that. That amount of consistent concentration repeated daily over the length of a ten-day tournament, can be just as draining as running the sidelines.
Thanks to her work with a sports psychologist, provided by Netball Australia, Michelle has developed great coping structures and believes they will carry her through the tournament. “So much of what we do is mental. I know for me, when I get to the end and I am tired, it isn’t physically tired, it is mentally tired. My brain is just fried. So, doing the work on the mental skills is crucial.”
“We do a lot of work with self-management, analysis, dealing with successes and disappointments, being conscious of other people. All those sorts of elements that come into play and impact upon performance. I think it is a much bigger aspect of the umpiring toolkit now and certainly for me, it is something I have done a lot of work on. I have now got a pretty good structure for how I work through my games.”
In the leadup to the World Cup, Michelle has also been immersed in the Australian Samsung Diamonds’ training camp. One of her roles at the camp was to work closely with the defenders and defensive specialist coach, Clare McMeniman, to help them develop strategies to draw less whistle. Michelle confirms that most of the talk was quite technical as they discussed positional adjustments and how to work through the processes rather than arguing the outcome.
Michelle laughingly admits umpiring the 6 ‘quarter’ game during the camp was a challenge for both her and the athletes. “I’m sure that Lisa [Alexander] loved the quarter where they scored 24 goals but I did not love running up to blow the whistle for those 24 goals in 15 minutes! I was waiting for a time out, but then I remembered it wasn’t SSN.”
The lack of timeouts at the World Cup is something which Michelle, in collaboration with Lisa, also spoke to the players about. The discussion was about how they could turn the game on their own, without the use of momentum shifting timeouts.
Having an umpire in the Diamonds camp also gave the players a unique chance to discuss the possible differences in umpiring standards during the World Cup. Michelle said, “Obviously in SSN we allow a fair bit of body work and strong contests. The players who are used to that may not be allowed to do that during the World Cup, so they need to be able to adjust.”
“I think the other thing they needed to learn was around game management. We tend to manage things a bit less formally in SSN around certain things we call or don’t call, what we do and don’t caution for, that sort of thing. They need to learn to adjust to those in a large tournament as they may be called differently.”
These adjustments are also part of Michelle’s preparation as she makes the switch between semi-formal SSN and the international stage. When asked about her cautioning of players she admits, with some embarrassment, that she won’t be repeating, ‘Not interested!’ to any of the players.
Michelle isn’t the only umpire making adjustments from SSN strategies, as Helen George and Marc Henning are also attending the World Cup. The two other Australians are amongst a handful of umpires debuting at this level. Despite being one of the more seasoned World Cup umpires, Michelle isn’t expecting to take on a mentoring role. “It all depends on the group dynamics. It is challenging doing a tournament like this because we have 17 umpires who don’t necessarily know each other, let alone have umpired together. There is a lot of personal management involved.”
Undertaking the personal management is where Michelle’s mental preparation comes into play. She likens the contest for officiating particular games to being an athlete on the bench; sometimes you don’t get a starting seven position because someone is performing better than you. So, the self-management is about, she explained, “Needing to manage your dreams and hopes while also being conscious of your success possibly meaning someone else’s disappointment. If you are the disappointed umpire it can make a tournament hard.”
Because performance plays such a crucial role in game allocation, many times the umpires do not know whether they will be officiating at a game until the night before, or possibly that morning. Again, this is where the self-management and mental preparation comes in. Michelle said, “It can be tricky. You need to manage your food, recovery, analysis etc. So, juggling the practical management, emotional management, and performance management can get overwhelming, let alone throwing in unexpected things like injuries or if you are a reserve and then have to go on, so you end up doing two games in one day.”
As an Australian umpire, Michelle is unable to officiate any Diamonds matches. Yet, despite her dream of umpiring her first World Cup gold medal match, she still puts her country pride ahead of her desires. “If Australia do well, I won’t get to do the gold medal match, but I am good with that.”
Will Michelle be around for the 2027 Netball World Cup if Australia is successful in its bid? With a defining laugh, she says, “Goodness me, no! I’d be out there with my walking frame by then. I haven’t ruled out 2023, but I suspect 2027 is a bridge too far.”