Innovation in Hockey: Should We Stick to What We Know?

Hockey innovation

Last weekend, I had my first competitive experience of hockey’s latest set of new rules. Our sport has embraced a number of major innovations in recent years, and we are regularly faced with small tweaks as well as more significant adaptations to the game. For the most part, these are seen as positive changes, which help to increase the speed and flow of the game, and encourage players to develop a wider range and greater level of skills.

Innovations in the Rules
Older readers may remember starting a hockey match with a bully and playing offside. If the ball went off the sideline, you rolled it back on – and you could also use a ‘hand stop’ on a short corner. A quick look at some information from Surbiton’s 1876 rulebook is enough to make you realise very quickly that the days of St. Trinians and jolly hockey sticks are long gone! More recently, developments such as the changing use of reverse stick skills, the introduction of penalty shuffles and – most importantly in my opinion – the self-pass rule, have transformed the game hugely in the space of less than ten years.

Of course, hockey isn’t alone in making rule changes. I imagine just about every sport has evolved as time has gone by, although some remain closer to their roots than others. There isn’t time to discuss these here, but cast your mind quickly to changes in the scoring system in squash, and the introduction of substitutions and cards in football. Some sports have been forced to change regulations for player safety: for example, rules about the scrum and concussion in rugby, and as a result of ‘bodyline’ bowling in cricket.

Critics of some of the newer hockey rules have highlighted the problems changes can cause. Constant alterations can make a sport more difficult to understand. They can threaten longstanding traditions. They can certainly challenge umpires, who are regularly forced to learn new rules – and in some cases, to officiate differently according to which level of the game they are umpiring. These difficulties must be managed and are not always easily overcome. In general, though, I think we tend to adapt quite quickly – playing hockey without being able to self-pass now seems unimaginable. Some changes are more difficult to adapt to, but in the end we all practise enough to get our heads around them.

Innovations in Officiating
Alongside regular changes to the rules, there have also been some helpful innovations in the way the sport is officiated. Before anyone jumps down my throat about the fact that these innovations are not available at every level of hockey, I am aware of this – I’m just commenting on the lucky umpires and players who do have access to them! In international matches and at National League level in England, umpires wear headsets, enabling them to communicate with one another during the game. More impactful still has been the introduction of a video referral system, similar to the ‘Hawkeye’ technology used in cricket and tennis. This gives both players and umpires the chance to use technology to help get big decisions right. It’s also worth mentioning that the technology itself has developed quickly over time. We used video referrals for the first time in the World Cup in 2006, but the quantity and quality of cameras has increased markedly in the last decade – and the percentage of correct decisions is surely now higher. It doesn’t mean it’s 100% perfect, but it is used in a way that actively supports umpires in potentially game-changing decisions which can often occur at extreme speeds.

Of course, some sports accept these technologies more reluctantly than others. FIFA has begrudgingly introduced goal line technology in the last year and other available innovations are rarely seriously considered in football. The usual arguments against the use of technology are concerned with refereeing being a ‘human’ activity – and a desire to remain close to the traditions of the game.

Innovations in Equipment
The hockey stick has come a long way. Early sticks were made of bamboo or wood. Today, most players use a composite stick made of carbon fibre and other materials, increasing power and durability. The shape and weight of sticks have changed and stick technology continues to advance every season. Goalkeeping kit, hockey shoes, protective equipment, the hockey ball: all have progressed as new technologies have been developed. Even the turf we play on has changed… I started on grass, moved to sand-based Astroturf and then a water-based pitch. The first Olympic Games played on an artificial surface was in Montreal in 1976, but ask most people who played hockey at that time and they will tell you about grass pitches – you might even hear shale mentioned! Modern hockey pitches are costly, but a good playing surface tends to positively influence play. A good stick isn’t a substitute for good technique, but there is still no doubt that equipment makes a big difference to skills.

Of course, just about every sport has seen equipment developed. The move from wooden to composite materials has also occurred in racquet sports. Meanwhile, imagine pole vaulting with an inflexible wooden or aluminium pole and landing on a heap of sawdust! The advances made in equipment moved by combinations of human effort and the laws of physics – think bicycles, skis and wheelchairs – have been enormous. As we have innovated equipment, the boundaries of human performance have extended far beyond what may have been believed possible a few decades ago.

Innovations in Competition
One rule change in hockey that has met a lot of criticism is the reduction from six to five players in indoor hockey. This demonstrates that ‘innovative’ ideas don’t always turn out to be a success! Other adaptations to the number of players in a team have perhaps been slightly more successful – the ‘Super Nines’ competition that began in Australia a couple of years back may yet have a greater role. The Hockey India League is currently underway and is based on a franchise system similar to the cricket IPL and Big Bash – Twenty20 cricket has taken off in a big way and adapting the basic format of the game can transform the way a sport is played, watched and marketed. Sports promoter Barry Hearn is well known for the way he has changed snooker and darts to make them more exciting and ‘spectator-friendly’. Ironically enough, one of the changes he has made to his most recent project – table tennis – is using old-school paddles, to actually slow the game down!

The Context of Innovation
Our perceptions of innovation are relative to technological and sociological contexts at a given time. For example, until the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, judges provided their own mechanical stopwatches and acted as timekeepers. Electronic timing wasn’t introduced until the Tokyo Games in 1964. Imagine Usain Bolt’s 100m race being timed by a mechanical stopwatch! Social change can also have an impact. It seems ridiculous that a golf club could prevent a person from becoming a member based on their skin colour or gender, but barriers like this have had to be broken down – and in some places, still need to be. Augusta National Golf Club (where the Masters is held) only allowed an African-American member for the first time in 1990, and a female member in 2012. To me, this seems unbelievable – but it suggests that even these kinds of policy changes may have been seen as ‘innovative’ in the not so distant past.

Perhaps we should consider why we often try to change sports. Some innovations are closely linked – for example, evolving equipment may require a subsequent rule change for safety reasons. In hockey, most rule changes seem to be related to making our sport quicker, more fluid, more skilful – in short, more entertaining. Recent developments suggest there is a threat to hockey’s status as an Olympic sport and the FIH appears to believe that changes are required to retain this status. However, many sports are innovative and hockey has undoubtedly been both a leader and a follower when it comes to new rules and technology. I think we have embraced change pretty much across the board. We have more advanced equipment and a openness to adapting rules to improve the game as a playing experience and a spectacle. This doesn’t mean we always get it right – some new rules simply have not worked and I can imagine that it’s a difficult job umpiring a sport that seems to be constantly changing. The current format of some major tournaments is questionable at best. And whilst I think we should be open to change, the traditionalist in me doesn’t want hockey to become a totally new, unrecognisable game to the one I fell in love with playing aged 11. Overall, though, I enjoy the evolving challenge of playing hockey. I’m proud that we’re prepared to be innovative, and I hope it stays that way.


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