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Building a Better Umpire

Get out the white cane and dark glasses ...

by Greg Letts - an Australian state coach, an International Umpire and one of the top ranked players in his country.

I'm writing this article in order to give a few pointers about everyone's favourite pastime - umpiring. Sooner or later, every table tennis player will be called upon to do his duty and umpire a match. I've put a few ideas below that should help you do the best job you can when the tournament director taps you on the shoulder and hands you a scorecard and a pencil. Although I am an International umpire myself at present, think of these as coming more from an experienced player who has umpired a lot of matches and managed to avoid too many major incidents along the way!

Know the rules

As a player being called upon to umpire a match, you should have a working knowledge of the rules. While you may not need to know the intricacies of the expedite system in exhaustive detail, you should at least have a firm grip on the basic rules, such as service, let calls, and the penalty system. These are things you should know already as a player - how else can you hope to play table tennis fairly?

If you are an umpire only - your standard should be set a fair bit higher. The basic rules of Table Tennis should be at your instant recall, and the expedite or penalty system should be crystal clear to you. You should also have a working knowledge of the Handbook for Match Officials available from the ITTF website.

Enforce the rules - but which ones?

This is a very contentious area in umpiring, and for good reason too. It's easy to say that every rule should be enforced. The main problem you will have is that there are quite a few rules to keep track of as an umpire, and if you tried to enforce each and every one you would be likely to cause a riot. As an example, according to point 7.1.5 of the ITTF Handbook for Match Officials, the umpire must check (emphasis mine) the racket covering against a list of currently authorised coverings. When was the last time at any tournament you saw an umpire do that? I don't think they even do that at the World Championships, unless they do it behind the scenes prior to a match.

So which rules are important, and which can be ignored? Well, that's a whole other can of worms. Everyone has an opinion about which rules are important and which aren't - the problem is that we generally pick which rules are important to us, and ignore those we don't care about. I'll try to give you a quick and dirty guide to which rules need to be enforced, and which don't.

Greg's Rule of Thumbs

There are two questions to ask yourself: (i) could ignoring this rule affect the outcome of the match?; and (ii) if only one player is breaking the rule, what would happen if the other player decided to do something similar at the worst possible moment?

A lot of umpires seem to ask question (i), but fail to think about question (ii). This is dangerous, as failing to think about both questions together can really bite you on the ass later on. See if you can spot the differences in these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Player 1 brings his towel onto the court and drapes it over the supports of the table on his side of the table. Player 2 does not object. You as the umpire say nothing. Towards the end of the match, Player 2 decides to bring his drink bottle onto the court. Player 1 objects to this, and Player 2 counters by objecting to Player 1's towel. What do you do now?

Scenario 2: Player 1, who is notorious for his bad temper, is clearly failing to remove his free arm from in front of his body when he serves, but Player 2 does not seem to have any trouble returning his serves, and makes no sign of complaint to you as the umpire. Player 2 is serving legally at all times. You decide that the serves, although illegal, will not affect the outcome of the match, and so you say nothing, and let play continue, breathing a sigh of relief that you have avoided a likely incident with the bad-tempered Player 1. Late in the match, on match point for Player 2, Player 2 serves and clearly hides the ball with his free arm. Player 1 misses the serve, and then complains about the hidden serve. What do you do?

Notice the difference between these cases? In Scenario 1, both actions are illegal, but all that is required is for you as the umpire to tell Player 1 and 2 to remove both towel and drink bottle, and all is well. Player 2 would be hard pressed to make a case that he lost the game because of Player 1's towel - it really didn't have any effect on the outcome.

But it Scenario 2, things are very different. Here both players have legitimate complaints to make, and you are well and truly up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Player 2 can honestly say that Player 1 has been doing exactly the same type of serves throughout the match without being called, so what reason do you have to call Player 2 on his serve and not Player 1? The fact that it was an important point won't wash, and neither will saying that you thought Player 2 could handle Player 1's serves - that is not your call to make. And Player 1 is quite entitled to ask why you have failed to fault a clearly illegal serve. You can hardly say that you have been letting him serve illegally throughout the match, so it's only fair that Player 2 can as well - Player 1 is likely to reply that it is up to you to call the faults regardless of who is serving.

Some umpires would try to get away with calling a let, but that really isn't the right solution either, as the rules only state that any serve of doubtful legality can be warned - and this serve was clearly a fault. Calling in the referee won't help either, as he can only rule on questions of rule interpretation - it is still up to you as the umpire to decide whether the free arm was removed from in front of the body in time or not. Whatever you decide, there will be at least one player who will be very unhappy with you, and possibly both if you try to make them play a let. All of which could have been avoided if you had asked yourself the two Rules of Thumbs.

Pay Attention

This is probably one of the most ignored requirements of umpiring. Many players seem to drift off into a coma, only rousing slightly to call the score out. Yawning while umpiring is not uncommon either, as well as fidgeting or looking around the hall at other matches.

Apart from being the cause of mistakes, it's very insulting to the players you are umpiring when you adopt this kind of behaviour. Focus on the game you are supposed to be looking after, and even if the match is more boring than watching paint dry, don't show it on the outside. Put a bit of life into your voice when you call the score as well - a monotone call of the score for point after point shows your lack of interest in the match.

Use your common sense

Every now and again you will come up against a situation where you don't know the answer or you aren't sure what to do. It may be something as simple as a ball that may have hit the edge or the side of the table, but you are not sure, or it may be as complicated as having to call for the expedite system to be used. Regardless of the situation, a little common sense will work wonders.

If you are a fellow player that is umpiring, ask the players for a little slack and suggest a reasonable solution to any problem. If the problem is about a question of fact, such as net ball on service or an edge/side ball that you are 50/50 about, playing a let is a reasonable compromise. If this is not acceptable to both players, make your best guess and stick to it - it is up to you in the end anyway.

If the problem is regarding rule interpretation, don't be afraid to say that you don't know and call in the referee - that is what he is there for. If the referee is unavailable, suggest a reasonable compromise and see if you can get both players to agree to it. If not, you had better wait for the referee to make a ruling. If there is no referee at all - take it to the tournament organisers and let them sort it out. If you are just playing casual games or club games, tell both players to that you are the umpire and you'll make the decisions, and if they don't like it they are welcome to find somebody else.

Other common sense actions to take as an umpire include:

  • Write down the score immediately after each game, it's surprising how easy it is to forget!
  • If one of the players calls a let on service, in general go with his call. Most players are pretty fair about this. If any player is doing it consistently and his oppenent is getting agitated about his calls, warn both players that in future you will make the judgements on let serves, and to play until they hear your call.
  • If umpiring doubles, stand up if you can - it will make calling the centre-line faults much easier.
  • On a point of fact such as an edge ball - if both players disagree with a decision of yours, be gracious and accept their advice. I would want to be absolutely 100% certain I was right before I overrode both players.
  • If you realise you have made a mistake, admit to it there and then, apologise and correct the situation.
  • If another ball comes onto the court of your match, call a let immediately, and then work out whether the point was over or not. Don't wait to see if the point is about to finish.
  • If another ball does come over to your court - discourage players from other courts calling lets on your court - you are the umpire and not them. They should be waiting quietly for you to call a let.
  • For any disturbance that you think might affect the players - just call a let straight away. It's easier to call the let when you shouldn't have then to ignore the let you should call - at least you have something to justify your let call, even if it wasn't as bad for the players as you thought.
  • Check the bats for overhanging rubber, missing pimples, etc. If you are not sure about its legality get the referee. Check that the opponent has no problems with the bat either - that way you are less likely to have complaints halfway through a match, or after one.

Be Player-Friendly

Some officials who don't play at all like to keep their distance from the players to help them in staying impartial, but if you are a fellow player you will probably know or have competed against the people you are umpiring, and it's a bit silly to act otherwise now. I personally would recommend that even non-playing officials should still be friendly to the players, but not familiar - there is a big difference. A friendly relationship between you and the players will help smooth over any little mistakes you make (and you will make them!), as the players will cut you more slack. Just make sure that you are equally friendly to both sides to avoid any claims of bias. Don't be afraid of calling faults for illegal serves or making the hard calls, just make the call, explain why in a firm voice, and don't argue about it. If anyone is unhappy call for the referee.

Be Spectator-Friendly

By this I mean do your best to improve the match for any spectators that might be watching. I don't mean trying to make the game a show, with yourself as the star. An umpire is at his best when he is hardly noticed at all by the spectators. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, but if you do the following tips you too will be a spectator friendly umpire who is not stealing the show from the players.

  • Call the score in a clear voice with enough volume to carry to spectators, but without disturbing other courts.
  • Wait until the applause dies down before calling the score - the only exception to this is if your players are in a hurry to get on to the next point, in which case keep to the player's rhythm and call a bit louder to cut through the noise.
  • If you have a scoreboard, try to angle it so that most of the spectators can see it. The occasional rotation of the scoreboard during breaks in the game, such as when the ball goes out of court, can make life a lot easier for spectators who are trying to work out the state of the match. Needless to say, if you have a scoreboard, use the game counters as well as the point counters.
  • Call out the game score after each game of the match - you should be doing this anyway, but if you don't have a scoreboard this is even more critical.
  • Don't draw attention to yourself - avoid the temptation to crack jokes for the benefit of your spectators, or ham it up when calling the score.


I hope you will find this article helpful when for when you are next called upon to sit in the high chair and make the tough decisions. It's a thankless job, but one that we as players all have to do sometime or other, and we would all like our umpires to do a good job when we play, wouldn't we?

© 2005-2022 Greg Letts

You may also read Greg's blog and purchase Australian TT videos from Greg's own website

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