From On The Field To In The Pitch: What Adland Can Learn From AFL Boundary Umpires

From On The Field To In The Pitch: What Adland Can Learn From AFL Boundary Umpires

Sophie Mateer, strategy executive at Initiative, reflects on the lessons that media execs can learn from a very unlikely place — AFL boundary umpires.

Lead image: AFL boundary umpires Ben Fely and Dan Field-Read (left and right, respectively); Sophie Mateer (centre).

Have you ever been yelled at by 40,000 people at once? In the life of an AFL boundary umpire, this is a weekly reality.

When it comes to the world of sports, we often fixate on the star players, breathtaking goals and dramatic moments. But have you ever looked at those who weave the white line, making critical decisions in a matter of seconds?

When I reached out to two AFL boundary umpires, my aim was to learn invaluable lessons from a perspective far beyond my own media lens.

It’s time to lace up your boots and step onto the field because you’re about to embark on a journey of intuition, communication, and resilience through the eyes of an AFL umpire.

Commit or Crash

An AFL boundary umpire’s intuition is second to none. They have the uncanny ability to determine when the ball is out of bounds in a fraction of a second, making anywhere between 800 to 1000 decisions per game. They remind us that in the fast-paced world of media, intuition is a key player, so it is critical for you to commit or crash.

Communicating Beyond the Boundary

Boundary umpires speak without ever saying a word. They communicate with signals and non-verbal cues from across the field in order to understand exactly what they need from one another. A real-life media example happened during a pitch, while one member of the team was presenting another was at the back signalling to ‘slow down and really land this point.’ The presenter took this hand signal to mean ‘move on from this point, we are running out of time.’ By understanding your teammates nonverbal cues, you are able to avoid miscommunication and present as a united front.

I Get Knocked Down but I Get Up Again

Picture this: with minutes to go, the teams are tied at 70-70, the ball is kicked out and the whistle blows. This decision costs the other team the game, the crowd is divided. Resilience is a word thrown around often, but AFL umpires truly live and breathe it. At any given time, an umpire’s decision will piss off 50 per cent of the crowd. Their jobs are proof that you can never please everyone, but you need to learn how to dust yourself off and keep going. To overcome difficult decisions, umpires use tools including breath work, owning their mistakes, reviewing their decisions, and most importantly embedding a safe, supportive, and ritualistic feedback culture.

As media experts, we need to separate ourselves from our echo chambers and find true human insights, outside. I never thought that stepping out of my bubble and seeking guidance from AFL umpires would teach me how to trust my intuition, improve my communication and build my resilience. By understanding the perspectives and experiences of others we can tell more meaningful stories, reach diverse audiences, and ultimately be better at our jobs.

So, it’s time for us to blow the whistle on old habits and ‘kick’ our media game up a notch… sorry I had to; you can never have too many puns!




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