Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Choosing the right hockey stick: Buyer’s guide and top tips

It is important to understand that the hockey stick and player must be regarded as a partnership. Without a player the stick is an inanimate object and without a stick the player is unable to play! Thinking of the stick in this way is helpful to emphasise that there is no “best stick”, but rather “the best stick for a given player”. Every brand and range has a model that is technically the best, but that doesn’t make it the best or right option for every player.

To assess the options available and make the right choice the player must first assess their playing style, the skills they use most in a game, the skills they find easiest to perform, the skills they want some help with and the feeling they want in their hands when the stick hits the ball and vice versa.

Understanding that the player’s style and aspects of technique is influenced by the shape / profile of the stick and their appreciation, comfort, enjoyment and ability to extract the best of that stick is influenced by the lay-up / construction / composition is the key to finding the best stick for you.

Choosing Your Shape

Hockey sticks come in a variety of shape profiles (often referred to as bows, moulds or bends) and lay-ups (sometimes called compositions or constructions). While different brands use different terms to describe the various options in their ranges, the underlying principles have some commonality across the market.

Stick profiles can generally be put into three categories, generically known as Mid, Late and Extra Late Bows, with the term referring to the position of the highest point of the bow (bend) rather than the size of that bow. Some brands will use their own terms (generally for marketing purposes) to describe shapes and adapt around these basic classifications by varying the exact position and size of the bow, but as a simple basis to use as a starting point this works well.

You may also see brands add grooves to the playing surface along with sometimes deviations from the basic rounded profile usually associated with the back of the stick.

Any groove, channel or indentation on the playing surface (the front side) of the stick that alters this surface from a traditional flat face will have an impact on the playing style of the stick, as described below. Deviations from a rounded profile on the back of the stick would usually lay claim to increasing torsional or linear stiffness, specific claims by manufacturers that may or may not have merit.

International Hockey Federation rules governing the shape of the stick that all manufacturers are required to comply with. The reality is that below international level and the top level of club hockey you will rarely see officials checking sticks for compliance, but nonetheless due to the costs of moulds and manufacturing no brand would knowingly look to produce a non-compliant stick.

The key rules in terms of shape concern the maximum height of a bow (25mm) and the lowest position that the apex of the bow can be from the base of the head (200mm). Usually brands would look to work inside these limits so as to allow for the vagaries of the stick testing process employed by FIH!

In general terms, here are some guidelines as to the positioning of the main bow classifications:

Mid bow – usually placed around 300mm from the base of the head
Late bow – usually placed around 250mm from the base of the head
Extra late bow – usually placed around 205mm from the base of the head

While the height of the bow will have a bearing on the playing characteristics of the shape and how it influences the player the position of the bow is a more significant factor. The bow position of the stick will determine where the stick will help the player and where the player has to help the stick in order to perform a full skill set.

The way to understand and assess these differences and assess the options is to begin with a starting point of the basics, i.e. trapping, pushing and hitting the ball. These are skills that every player must have as the cornerstone of their game and perfect execution of them requires a flat and square connection with the ball in its purest sense. The position of the bow influences the placement of the player’s hands to enable this basic starting point.

To approach and assess the range of options it helps to imagine a sliding scale where you have the mid bow at one end and the extra late bow at the other.

The mid bow shape is often regarded as “straighter” in simple terminology. This means that the face of the stick will have a flat and square connection with the ball with the hands / wrists in a conventional position, which is left hand over the stick head when addressing the ball, which always has an optimum position of being in line with the player’s head and around the front foot.

The lower the high point of the bow is pushed down the stick the more the player must adjust their hand / wrist position to move in front of the stick head (and ball) to maintain a flat and square contact. The ball should never be moved back in the player’s stance to compensate for a lower bow since that will mean contact with the ball would be on the downswing rather than through-swing when hitting the ball, control would be lost when pushing and balance / vision would be affected when trapping.

If the player does not make this adjustment as the bow moves lower the typical consequence when hitting or pushing the ball is a loss of control in direction and trajectory; to varying degrees the ball will go up and left. Similarly when trapping the ball it will lift off the ground and possibly come in towards the player’s legs / feet.

So at one end of the scale then the mid bow is shaped to help a basic skill set, hitting, pushing, trapping etc. With this shape you can perform and control the basics without having to concentrate too much on hand / wrist position and can keep your hands in the orthodox position, i.e. positioned in line with the stick head. However, if you want to perform some of the more dynamic skills (3D work, wide angle ball movement, backhand, overheads etc) then you have to work a bit harder to drop your wrists and create an angle to enable a wider range of ball movement, i.e. 3D dribbling, wider angle dragging or dribbling, flicking etc and also get your hands much lower to the ground to get the stick flat for backhand hitting.

Shift to the other scale and the extra late bow and you have a shape that is geared up to help more dynamic skills and a wider range of ball movement but you have to make adjustments to perform the basics well. The bend position means 3D and wide angle ball movement is easier without you having to alter body / hand / wrist position as the shape creates more extreme stick head angles through the bow position.

You can perform backhand with a more upright angle to the ground since the contact point will be square to the ball earlier than with a higher bend (in fact if you try and backhand with a stick parallel to the ground, i.e. flatter, you will not get the right connection and will hit with the back of the stick). Of course overheads and drag flicks are helped massively too. The flip side is that you have to work your wrists and arms to get your hands ahead of the stick head to present a flat face to trap the ball and keep hits and pushes flat and straight.

Everything between these extremes of the scale will have a graduated assistance along the scale, which makes a late bow the ideal shape for a full skill set in the modern game with limited adjustments by the player to perform at either end of the scale.

As mentioned above, some profiles will have a groove or channel across part of the playing surface of the stick, typically the lower third of the playing area and the head. The purpose is to add to the control and execution of skills involving lifting the ball and also for generally dribbling the ball. The flip side to this is that the area of the head / shaft where the stick makes flat and full contact with the ball is dramatically reduced in size, so the player must be very precise in the basics of trapping, hitting and pushing to execute those skills correctly.

Whatever you want from your game it is vital to remember that no stick is a magic wand. The stick will help the player with some things and the player must work to enable the rest. it is very much a partnership.

Choosing Your Model

The shapes offered by different brands are a secondary classification of a stick, though as shown above a very important one. Depending on the brand’s philosophy though shapes will vary across the range, so we need to consider which model is right for you and that is a consideration around the composition / construction / lay-up of the stick.

There is a common method of marketing the merits of stick composition in the hockey market which is to publish a material content in the stick by percentage of the overall composition. This is a very simple system to understand but it really should be recognised that it is a very, very loose way of assessing sticks at best and at worst it is a very misleading way.

Take carbon, for example, the stated content of which is often regarded as most important by players. There are many sourcing options for carbon and many different grades of the material also. This makes “carbon” in itself a factor open to significant variation – how good is the carbon in stick A relative to stick B?

That is something that a percentage figure and the word itself never elaborates on. The differences in performance between the best and the worst are incredibly significant though, so ask yourself whether a high percentage figure is so important if you don’t know how that carbon measures up on the scale of quality?

It is also very true to say that the amount of each material in the stick is only as important as the arrangement of the materials and other aspects of the moulding process.

In all it is really far too simplistic to regard stated percentages as a measure of comparable quality. Much better is to consider the stick on a more personal basis. Typically players measure the quality of the stick on how hard they hit the ball, but again this is a very narrow and very basic line of thought.

All composite sticks are again just inanimate objects in the hands of a player and it is the player’s ability that influences the power generated more so than the stick in most cases. A clean and correct connection with the ball is more important because consistency is as important as potential.

Yes, a “better” stick will mean that a bad player will hit the ball harder, but if they only hit the ball correctly two times out of 10 then that just means two better hits! It is better to focus on developing technique and an aspect of that is for the player to develop a better understanding of the stick and the wider considerations of what makes the stick right for them.

If we consider the potential power of the stick to be linked to the player’s ability to extract it, the wider consideration is the feel of the stick. This means the feeling the player gets in their hands when there is a connection with the ball. This is the most personal connection and has a bearing on the basics of control and also the comfort and quality of executing the strike. If the player cannot control the ball or does not like the feeling they get when they strike it (regarded as too stiff or too flexible) then they will not get the most from their game.

Every composite stick will generate a vibration wave on contact with the ball. How large that wave is and how fast it travels up the stick is something that is controlled by the composition and arrangement (collectively, the lay-up) of the stick. Top end sticks will generate a fast and powerful wave because they are stiffer, which means less torsional / linear movement in the stick structure on contact and more of the swing speed being transferred through the ball. As you move down the range the stiffness of the stick reduces, so the wave gets smaller and weaker, movement in the structure increases and energy transfer from the swing is reduced.

The stiffness of the stick is directly linked to the potential power therefore, but it should also be considered that it affects the touch of the stick and the feeling in the player’s hands. Stiffer sticks will generate a more “instant” registration of contact through the hands due to a faster / bigger wave. In playing terms this can be described as a more instant or responsive touch. More flexible sticks will give a little, so there is a slight delay in that feeling and the touch in playing terms can be described as softer as a result.

If we consider power to be something of potential in a stick that the player must extract then conversely the touch / feel aspect is much more consistent and determined by the stick itself, or more precisely the lay-up. In playing terms this means you should look for a stick that feels right when you control or move the ball, one that gives you the connection and feel that you find right in a performance sense when balanced to personal comfort and the ability to execute ball control too.

It is therefore important to find the right balance between stiffness and touch. This is something best assessed by dribbling the ball from side to side since this is a constant and personal connection. Players that want to test sticks by hitting the ball are missing the point since there are technical variables that mean it may be their inconsistencies rather than the stick which influences their decisions. Again, all sticks can hit the ball but only as well as you can!

The right stick for you is determined by your personal feeling towards it, not information provided in the guise of marketing or product description that is something entirely unseen, unmeasurable and assumed on the part of the player.

The main materials used in most sticks are carbon, aramid and glassfibre.

Carbon is for stiffness and rigidity, directly linked to potential power but again consider this to be dependent on correct application in manufacture and the quality of the material itself.

Aramid is sometimes referred to as Kevlar, which is a trade name for a material that does the same job, namely shock absorption and abrasion resistance.

Glassfibre is a basic strength and durability material used structurally.

The arrangement of these materials will not only determine power but also feel too. Higher carbon content sticks can have a lighter than expected touch with the right material arrangement. Some manufacturers also add other materials to cushion the touch in the hands of the player.

Ultimately consider the stick as something that you need the right connection with, which involves more than just potential power since “potential” needs to be realised to be effective. It is more important to have the right touch and feel characteristics in your stick to develop and enhance your game fully.

Weight / Balance

This bit is pretty simple and something entirely down to what feels most comfortable to the player.

Weight is obvious – how heavy the stick is in grams. Naturally a heavier helps generate more force when hitting etc but the key is to get something you can move and control. To that end dribbling from side to side is the best test of stick weight (and balance). If the stick and ball move together then that suits you. If the stick is moving faster than the ball then it’s probably too light and vice versa.

The Balance Point (BP) of a stick determines the distribution of the weight. The mid point is 400mm and so a stick with a 400mm BP will be evenly weighted with the distribution across the stick and an even pick up. Below 400mm and you get a weighting more towards the head (lower balance) and above 400mm creates a lighter head with a balance more towards the handle.

Balance is arguably more influential than weight in that two sticks of the same weight will feel more different with varying BPs rather than two different weights with the same BP. When you have the weight / balance correct the stick and ball move together and you find it easy to play with. Weight too high and / or balance too low means the stick can’t keep up with the ball and you’ll lose control. Weight too low and / or balance too high means the stick will move too quickly and again, control is lost.

The influence and importance of weight and balance is why the best way to establish whether a stick works for you is ultimately to dribble, not hit.

Summary

No two sticks are the same, no two brands are the same, percentages are meaningless, there is no such thing as “the best stick”. While this means you have to think a bit harder it’s worth it to get the right result – the best stick ‘for you’.

Consider your playing style, whether you want to compliment or develop. That helps you choose the shape.

Consider what you want the contact between stick and ball to feel like in your hands. That helps you choose your model. Forget “hitting” or “power” at this point, if you can’t control it or you don’t like the feeling when you hit it then you won’t be able to hit well anyway! Power capability of a stick is only as good as the player’s ability or desire to achieve it.

Consider the weight and balance that works for you. A lower balance for more emphasis behind the ball or a higher balance for a lighter and faster moving head?

Most of all ignore the marketing – it’s just that. Visit a store, check some sticks out by dribbling and not hitting (more personal, more consistent, more meaningful) and finally if you’re down to a final two or three pick the one you like the look of best!

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