Somehow, Angela Armstrong-Lush balances a hectic life as a teacher, mum of four and international netball umpire. She tells Merryn Anderson how she’s seen netball change since she was a top player 20 years ago.
As this year’s ANZ Premiership marks 25 years of elite netball in New Zealand, Angela Armstrong-Lush is monitoring it all from the baseline.
Umpiring her 100th national league match last Saturday, Armstrong-Lush has had a front row seat watching the evolution of elite netball in New Zealand over the last 20 years – even starting off as a player for the Western Flyers in the National Bank Cup.
Her growth as an umpire has come alongside her growth off the court. Armstrong-Lush admits at the start of her umpiring career, any mistake seemed like the end of the world.
“Realistically, in the big picture of life, it was one snapshot in time,” she says.
“I think we’re so hard on ourselves because we want to strive for excellence. Lots of athletes, myself included, suffer from depression, so it’s about learning to celebrate the successes and be happy with what we’ve got, rather than continually trying to achieve something that’s sometimes unrealistic.”
Armstrong-Lush started her umpiring career with indoor netball for a bit of extra money as a young adult (she played for New Zealand in both the women’s and mixed indoor teams). She graduated to umpiring outdoor netball and received her New Zealand badge around the same time as she was chosen to play for the Flyers.
She was 22 – and had just had her second child – when she was convinced by close friend and future Silver Fern, Liana Leota, to go to the Flyers trials. Leota’s mum, Robyn Chase, even had to bundle Armstrong-Lush into her van and drive her there.
A versatile shooter and midcourter, who’d go on to play for the Flyers and Manawatu at the national championships on and off for close to a decade, Armstrong-Lush remembers rewinding VCR tapes to analyse games as a player.
“Gosh I’m sounding old,” she laughs.
“I remember we were just rapt we had things paid for us, and at the end when we got a bonus of $50 for the whole season. That was amazing,” Armstrong-Lush says.
Compared to the resources being invested in the current competition, there’s been a huge shift, she notes.
“I know from playing, the game has changed – the athletes have got stronger, and the game is more physical, but in a skillful way,” she says. “The players and the teams have now been able to focus on creating athletes that are physically and mentally stronger now as well, and there’s more tactics behind the game.”
Armstrong-Lush put her umpiring career on hold while she was playing, knowing she could always go back to it. After turning 30 and having her fourth child, Armstrong-Lush returned to umpiring, and her career started to take off.
“I thought ‘Well I’m not going to make the Silver Ferns, I may as well just give umpiring a go’,” she says.
Balancing her job as a teacher at Feilding Intermediate School with being a mum of four and umpiring at the highest level isn’t easy. Armstrong-Lush says it would be impossible without the support of husband, Nic, an indoor netball player himself.
“He’s been my rock really. And also my family – without them, I actually wouldn’t be able to do what I do,” she says.
“My husband literally becomes a solo dad when netball season is on. He cleans the house, cooks the meals, looks after the kids and all I have to really focus on is where I’m working and netball, so I’m extremely fortunate.”
Armstrong-Lush pauses when trying to calculate how many hours a week she dedicates to umpiring in some form – it’s not just the 60 minutes of play she has to show up for.
“I would say the umpires need to be just as fit as what players are,” she says.
“The training is actually very similar so we go to the gym, we do our conditioning, we do interval training,” Armstrong-Lush says, estimating she spends six days a week either at the gym or interval training.
“The only difference I guess is that our skillset is a little bit different. We have to practise with things like our vision, and learning how to get the accuracy of contact versus contest,” she says.
“I also try, when possible, to get to the team trainings so I can actually practise the skills I need to practise,” she says. She even umpires local games on Tuesday nights and Saturdays during the ANZ Premiership.
“Sometimes with umpiring, you don’t necessarily need to umpire the high level games, it’s actually the lower level games that help you refine your craft and actually teach you more.”
Each umpire also has a coach who looks after them throughout the season, having meetings to discuss performance and analyse video.
On top of that, Armstrong-Lush estimates she spends four to five hours “looking at the mental side of netball.”
“It actually is [a lot of time]. It’s more than what people think and the perception of what umpires do,” she says.
All that effort is key to her longevity as an umpire, looking after herself off court as well.
“I’ve improved mentally, physically, emotionally, but I think the mental side has been the biggest way I’ve actually improved – learning to understand who I am and again to celebrate the big and little successes,” Armstrong-Lush says.
Once the 2022 ANZ Premiership wraps up, Armstrong-Lush will begin her preparations for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in July, selected as one of 13 match umpires for the pinnacle event, alongside fellow Kiwis Gareth Fowler and Ken Metekingi.
This will be Armstrong-Lush’s second Commonwealth Games, elevated from a reserve umpire for the 2018 Gold Coast Games.
“I kind of had the mindset of ‘I’ve got there, I’ve got nothing to lose’. I hadn’t been appointed, so I was just going to embrace anything that happened and absolutely enjoy the moment, which I absolutely did. I loved it,” she says of the Games experience.
Her mindset doesn’t change much going into Birmingham, keeping the same grounded approach to matches.
“There are so many things I can’t control, so the only thing I can control is me,” she says.
“I’m just going to focus on me and focus on putting out the best I can. And looking at if I’ve made a mistake, it’s an opportunity to grow.”
Armstrong-Lush’s favourite thing about being an umpire is the sense of community she’s discovered over her years on and off court.
“A lot of people have given me something that’s actually contributed and helped me be the person I am today. So for me, it’s about giving back to the sport because of what those people gave to me,” she says.
She encourages anyone interested in umpiring at any level to be open to the process.
“Give it a go – you’re going to make mistakes and those mistakes are fine as long as you use them as a learning opportunity,” Armstrong-Lush says.
“You’re going to get some things wrong, and right, that people don’t agree with. But as long as you’re comfortable in yourself, you can find some people or a person you can talk to to understand. You’ll be fine, just keep going.”
The ANZ Premiership continues this weekend, with the Mystics taking on the Pulse on Sunday at 2pm, followed by the Steel facing the Stars at 4pm. The round concludes on Monday, with the Magic vs Tactix at 7pm. Catch all the action live on Sky Sport 1.