Behind the Whistle: An Interview with AFL Umpire David Harris

Written: July 2020

Updated: March 2023

David Harris is a field umpire and achieved his 150th AFL game milestone in April 2021. His career highlight is making it onto the AFL list and umpiring his first AFL game. “I still pinch myself being involved in the AFL. The more games you do, the more comfortable you feel in this environment.” David believes that resilience and believing in his own ability are two of his biggest learnings so far.

David Harris Umpiring Melbourne Demons AFL

With the AFL footy season back on, we thought we would speak with AFL Umpire David Harris to get a different perspective on the disruption and adaptation amidst the turmoil of COVID-19.

How good is it to have AFL football back, have you missed it?

It’s great to have AFL back, as I really enjoy being back out on the park. It’s good for everyone.

How did you get into AFL umpiring, what was your pathway?

I umpired in the country as a young fella where I grew up. My headmaster recommended it at primary school, as I was small, and one year of playing was enough for me. Also, the $7.50 payment was all the encouragement I needed! I also did little athletics, so umpiring helped to keep me fit. I started my career in umpiring in the country league near Warrnambool. Then went onto VFL and was lucky enough to be rookied in 2012. I never looked back from there. The West Coast V Collingwood final in 2018 was a really memorable game for me. The big crowd, and it was such a close game.

Obviously, this is the first time we've experienced a season like this. How have AFL umpires been affected and adapted to the changing circumstances?

It was a weird time, as initially I found it really hard to get motivated to train. With no start date in sight, I preferred to spend time with my family which was great. But it felt good to get back into my training once we had a set date. Footy is pretty much the same to the umpire, but now with no spectators, if there are longer breaks between goals, that’s when I really noticed no crowd noise.

You've spent some time in the Queensland hub - how was that experience for you?

Good enjoyable first week – we even had a golf course in the resort before we had to move. We mixed up our umpire training with; beach training, field training and some bike riding. It gave us some really good camaraderie with the other umpires.

As an umpire, you may need a thick skin, especially the way the crowd and some players react to decisions made in the heat of battle. Did you have a strategy to cope with this?

I try to block out all the peripheral noise. I have mentors and coaches who I take advice from. Everyone is keen to give us advice, so I really only listen to a handful of people whose judgement I trust. In the heat of the battle, you can get it very wrong and when you are tired, this may contribute to that. I don’t get caught up in the noise and just try to brush it aside. It’s also good to have outside interests to balance out the intensity of AFL umpiring. In my full-time job, I am a painter and I find it relaxing, almost like meditation.

Combining AFL umpiring and work would keep you very busy. Can you tell us what an average week looks like for you during an AFL season, including any nutrition and hydration strategies?

I am always very busy from a training perspective. A general week for me will look something like this;

  • Monday is a recovery daylight run usually.
  • Tuesday is usually a hard training interval/endurance type session.
  • Wednesday ride run & group session revolves more around speed and some technical stuff.
  • Friday is a pregame run.
  • Saturday, I umpire. So I always ensure I drink lots of fluid and just try to always eat good healthy food and no takeaway type food.

Fatigue and dehydration whilst umpiring AFL games could impact the ability to perform at the highest level. Is dehydration an issue for you and how does it impact your training and athletic performance?

Typically I can run an average 16kms a game and perhaps 3km in sprints. I find the last 15mis of the last quarters late in games the hardest. I can be really fatigued. I’ve always had issues with this.

With covid, the rules have changed and the games are shorter. It’s actually harder for us to drink during the game, so we only really are able to drink during the breaks, which of course, throws up another challenge of how to keep your hydration up. In QLD, I notice the humidity. I used hydration tabs like Koda. I also started using PREPD and noticed some big benefits. I was able to run throughout the games better, didn’t need to urinate as much, and my recovery is so much better, as I’m not as stiff and sore afterwards. It is really incredible seeing the benefits first-hand.

What made you want to try PREPD and will you continue using PREPD going forward?

During my umpiring career, I have struggled with cramping, especially late in games. I have tried lots of different products to help with cramps but never found anything that worked or simply tasted great. I was fortunate to come across PREPD during the Covid – 19 shutdown period and experienced a difference in my performance and recovery in and after matches immediately. Not only has the amount of fluid loss during games decreased, but my recovery was also noticeably quicker post-game. I didn’t have that “heavy” feeling in my legs days after my game like I had experienced before. This will become a staple in my preparation for training and games going forward!