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Rules of endangerment: Is hockey moving too far and too fast with above-shoulder play?

England’s Sophie Bray (right) and Argentina’s Silvina D’Elía  (c) Andy SmithThose watching English national league premier division matches this season, or international hockey over the summer, will have noticed a significant change in play – the carrying out of an action that is specifically prohibited in the Rules of Hockey, without penalty being imposed by umpires or protest coming from opponents. The playing of the ball at above shoulder height by any player anywhere on the pitch is now allowed, writes Martin Conlon.

How has this come about without the usual International Hockey Federation (FIH) mandatory experimental period for rule changes? Part of the answer is that this change is being permitted, for the present, only at national league premier division level in domestic hockey. But alongside concerns about the actual actions being used, there must be misgivings about the fact that what is happening is not covered by the published Rules of Hockey, and also about the way in which this deviation has come about.

The change has its roots in the regulations of the Euro Hockey League (EHL), where a significantly different version of above-shoulder play has been permitted since the 2011-12 season (see the Euro area, over the page). The key difference between the European variation and the FIH Regulations is that the former allows a player, subject to danger, to “stop, receive and/or deflect the ball in a controlled manner in any part of the field when the ball is above the shoulder.” The less stringent FIH variation allows any sort of play above the shoulder, again subject to danger, not just stopping, receiving or deflecting.

I find it odd that the FIH Tournament Regulation published in August 2013 should be activated in time for pre-season tournaments and be in operation in domestic competition by early September 2013. This despite the FIH’s own warning to national governing bodies that rule variations in domestic hockey require authorisation by the FIH and need at least eight weeks notice. (For copies of all these documents see www.pushhockey.co.uk/world/2013/2013-rule-variations).

The unseemly haste and the apparent by-passing of their own procedural rules by the FIH committees is possibly so that this ‘spectacular’ addition to play can be presented to World Cup audiences in 2014.

Such an approach could be seen as sloppy, but forgivable, if the EHL experiment with above-shoulder play had not thrown up problems of player safety, and if the new Regulation matched (or further restricted) what has been permitted in the EHL since 2011.

But the new FIH Regulation goes considerably beyond what EHL allowed in 2012-13, and the above shoulder play experiment in the EHL did produce some incidents that should be of concern. For example, in 2012 Amsterdam’s Billy Bakker volleyed in a shot from above the shoulder, from close to the penalty spot, against Dinamo Kazan in the KO16, causing his team-mate to take evasive action – see www.pushhockey.co.uk/world/video/2013/shot-over-shoulder. The attacker in the example goes beyond the EHL Regulation which stipulates stopping, receiving and/or deflecting in a controlled manner. He hits the ball at the goal from above shoulder height.

There is no doubt that the facility to receive or intercept an aerial pass is a necessary and even an attractive addition to hockey – but that is all that it is necessary to facilitate. There is no need to deflect the ball away from above shoulder height, as in a pass to a team-mate or a shot at the goal, and there is certainly no need to add hitting of the ball at above shoulder height to the repertoire of any player.

I believe that the regulation introduced into the EHL in 2011 should be modified to allow a player, when the ball is above the shoulder, to safely stop and control it to ground and/or to safely deflect the ball in a controlled manner into his/her own possession or path, in any part of the field except from within the opponent’s circle. Playing of the ball at above shoulder height when within the opponent’s circle should be prohibited.

According to the new FIH Tournament Regulation, the hitting action seen in the Bakker example is legitimate. The Regulation allows “play” above shoulder height and play includes all legal playing actions including hitting. That is far too broad a facility, and should be rejected as unnecessary to meet the desirable requirement that players be given the facility to receive or intercept an aerial pass at above shoulder height.

The difficulty lies in the actions after initial contact between stick and ball at above shoulder height. The aim must be to get the ball onto the ground as quickly and as safely as possible, without the action being unfair to opponents but while also giving the receiving player opportunity to develop play.

Allowing a receiver to safely deflect the ball just ahead of her or himself so that s/he can then run onto the ball is the maximum that should be allowed to a player who intends to retain possession of the ball – the norm should be to control the ball into close possession as quickly as possible. Deflecting the ball away as a passing action should be confined to play below shoulder height except when defending a shot made at the goal. The facility to play the ball at above shoulder height should be seen primarily as a receiving or intercepting action, not as a passing or shooting action. The emphasis is on safety.

Other changes

I would make changes to other Rules of Hockey which impinge on this replacing of Rule 9.7 with Article 4 of FIH Tournament Regulations – they need to be made in any case.

The recently added direct lift from a free ball should have a clause forbidding the lifting of a free ball directly into the circle – it is presently permitted from beyond the 23m line. As the FIH rules committee have stated in the preface to the Rules of Hockey, “The emphasis is on safety”, so it should be.

The ban on playing the ball directly into the circle when a free ball is awarded in the opponent’s 23m area should also be withdrawn, but that is a rule that impinges on areas other than playing the ball at above shoulder height.

It would also be a blessing if the FIH rules committee would squash a nasty rumour that has been circulating since 2008 – the ridiculous, contrary-to-rule notion that an ‘on target’ shot at the goal cannot be considered to be dangerous play (see below). This was possibly why the umpire awarded the Dutch a goal after the above-shoulder shot in the EHL example.

 

The Euro area

There are now two variants on the over-the-shoulder rule variation.

The FIH Tournament Regulations state: “Players may play the ball above shoulder height provided that it is not dangerous or leading to danger.”

The much tighter European Hockey Federation regulations for use in the EHL and European Club Champions Cup read: “A player may stop, receive and/or deflect the ball in a controlled manner in any part of the field when the ball is above the shoulder, unless this is dangerous or leads to danger. Players must not play the ball dangerously or in any way that leads to dangerous situations for any player.”

Confusingly, EHF international tournaments will be played under the FIH Regulations.

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