She’s tough and breaking new ground

An interview with Chelsea Roffey

How did you get into goal umpiring?

I grew up in Queensland, but was born in footy-mad South Australia and spent my early years there, so I became a footy tragic from a young age. I found the game exciting to watch and would attend Gabba matches with my family to see the Brisbane Lions in action. I answered a call for volunteers to goal umpire the boys’ team during my final year of high school. The following year, I started umpiring locally for pocket money while studying for a music degree at the Queensland Conservatorium. I saw it as a chance to be paid for doing something fun and challenging. Five and a half years later, in 2004, I stepped out onto the Gabba as the second woman in history to umpire professionally at that level.

What’s the toughest part of your job?

Some decisions are incredibly close and tough to pick up – for example a contest online where a defender barely grazes the ball, or when someone throws a boot at the ball from a pack in the goal square. Learning to read the play and move decisively to the right position is imperative to consistently getting these decisions correct. Blocking out “advice” from people in the crowd takes practice, but the most challenging aspect is learning to deal with constant scrutiny in a pressure cooker environment.

What does a typical week entail?

During the football season we attend training twice a week, which involves fitness and conditioning sessions, skills coaching and video review analysis of decisions from the weekend’s games. Outside of training we are expected to maintain fitness in preparation for testing including endurance time trials run over three kilometres, beep tests, agility tests and skin folds. On game day we arrive at the ground at least 90 minutes before the siren to familiarise ourselves with the conditions, get suited up in vests housing ear pieces and microphones for communicating on field, and to get in the zone mentally.

Match observers critique our performances for each game to determine our rankings through the year, which will decide who is selected for finals, so everything we do is heavily scrutinised. After the season’s end in October we have a few weeks off to rejuvenate and then get back into training to prepare for pre-season time trials.

How has your job prepared you for other aspects of life?

Umpiring has taught me to maintain composure under pressure, back my judgement and let go of situations that are out of my control – how you respond may affect your next decision, so you have to learn to focus on the positives. I love being paid to challenge myself mentally and physically, to develop attention to detail and concentration, and to work as part of a team with other umpires. The combination allows you to get into a sense of flow where you’re totally in the zone. It’s a buzz. These skills transfer to many situations in life. Giving a keynote talk to 500 people is less daunting when you regularly perform in front of audiences upwards of 50,000, having every move televised!

What have been some highlights?

I’ve officiated in front of some spine-tingling crowds, including the incredible atmosphere on Anzac Day. Umpiring at different grounds has given me a chance to travel within Australia, and I’ve also umpired in Wellington, New Zealand, and for an exhibition match in London. Without doubt, being the first woman to officiate in an AFL grand final is the greatest highlight. The game itself was incredible – a 10-point nail-biter between Hawthorn and Sydney. The game was a breeze compared to managing the media hype surrounding my appointment. News reached as far as the New York Times and BBC, while Prime Minister Gillard requested access to the change rooms before the match to congratulate me. That blew my mind more than being selected for the game itself! But there is nothing quite like riding the excitement of a closely contested grand final with 100,000 screaming fans.

How have the men adapted to having women on the field?

The players are for the most part very professional. As long as you do your job, they don’t care about your gender (unlike some of the experiences faced coming up the ranks of grassroots competition). The culture of umpiring has shifted greatly from a heavily male dominated industry to one that fosters diversity and is more open to new ways of doing things. The AFL industry recognises the economic imperative for including women, and rightly so, but change is a slow process.

I moved from Brisbane to football heartland in Melbourne in 2008 with trepidation about how my colleagues would react, having never had a woman amid their ranks. While adapting to fit into a male dominated environment has had some really tough challenges, I’ve noticed a massive shift in attitudes over the time I’ve been involved. There are now three AFL listed female goal umpires and a female pathway for field umpires. As women become more accepted in traditionally male environments, it will help to ease the burden of pressure on those who break new ground in their industries.

How has your umpiring experience shaped your personal and career goals?

Umpiring is not a full-time gig, and I work as a journalist outside of football. My experiences have shaped what I write and speak about, and football has opened doors for me in that sense. I’ve become a passionate advocate for diversity and promoting women who challenge the status quo. In 2014, I completed a Winston Churchill fellowship, travelling to the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Sweden and India to explore strategies for influencing social change that enables girls to be the authors of their own lives. I’ve also been an invited guest of APEC at their women’s leadership forum in Beijing.

I love facilitating discussions and sharing my story with people from all walks of life: from school students to women in male dominated industries to men who want to promote environments for female staff to thrive. Everything I do is underpinned by the desire to challenge the way people think and to encourage creativity in thought and diversity in culture.


Image Credit – Courtesy AFL Photos

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