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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“That ball was on the line!”… Or was it?


Good old football has, once again, been in the news this week. Arsene Wenger’s amazing one thousand games in charge of Arsenal and the club’s 6-0 drubbing by Chelsea were overshadowed by a huge mistake by the referee. Not only did he make an arguably incorrect decision to brandish a red card for a handball by Arsenal, he also managed to show it to the wrong player… Big oops. This has of course raised the usual questions about the use of technology in football: would having the option of a video review have prevented this from happening? Do referees need more help to ensure the decisions they make are correct in real time?

Many sports have embraced technology to help officials make decisions, review the decisions that have been made, and even to take decision-making out of a referee’s hands. This can improve consistency and fairness, add entertainment, and even become a tactical consideration for sportspeople. But is it always a good thing?

Cricket and tennis are two high profile examples of sports that have fully integrated and accepted video technology as part of officiating. When objects are flying around at well over 100mph, you can see why the human eye isn’t always able to correctly assess the position a tennis ball has landed in, or the line or predicted trajectory of a cricket ball. Both sports use video review systems (based on ‘Hawkeye’ technology) to enable players to challenge the calls that human officials have made during the game. Meanwhile, umpires are also able to call upon the technology to confirm or question their own decisions. The human element hasn’t been entirely removed though. For example, in cricket, inconclusive decisions defer back to the umpire’s original call. In theory, top level tennis events could probably function without line judges and rely solely on Hawkeye to determine whether the ball has fallen in or out on each point. However, this isn’t what the use of technology has been brought in to do. It is an aid to the human officials, not a replacement of them. Interestingly, according to one study, tennis line judges display remarkable perceptual proficiency in calling correctly, with a success rate of over 90% when the ball is within 100mm of the baseline. Trained humans have an amazing capacity for visually accuracy (and in general, the line judges are more accurate than the players!). Chair umpires also retain the power to overturn the decisions of line judges and advise players as to whether a challenge is worthwhile. To this end, the human element of officiating has certainly not been lost in tennis now that technology has been integrated.

Hockey also bases its use of video review on a challenge system. Players (and umpires) are able to request a video referral in relation to goals and infringements within the attacking and defending 23m areas. With the game now played at incredible speed and given the frequent significance of penalty corners, use of referrals can now be a crucial part of the game. As with tennis and cricket, players have a limited number of challenges available to them, so tactical considerations can be quite significant. For example, possible referral opportunities are not always used by a team early on, in case they are incorrect and therefore do not have the chance to refer a decision at a later point. The Australian cricket team made some notoriously bad decisions to review during the Ashes in the summer of 2013, leaving them unable to challenge calls at crucial times, whereas the England team had a clear strategy for deciding whether it would be worthwhile using the DRS (Decision Review System). In hockey, it is also important to consider the type of decisions being referred. Whereas in tennis, where it is a reasonably ‘black and white’ decision – the ball is either in or it is out – many decisions in hockey are related to the umpire’s interpretation of the rules in the context of a given situation. It is therefore important that players consider the nature of the decision they are questioning: is it a clear infringement or is a third umpire going to find it difficult to overturn the original interpretation of events made by an umpire on the field?

Emotions, fatigue and simply executing physical skills can influence a player’s ability to make the right decision about when to use a video referral. When competing in a high pressure environment, and potentially huge rewards are added into the equation, it is unsurprising that sports performers sometimes make the wrong call. You may recall a situation in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 where a taekwondo player was disqualified for a rule infringement during the bronze final. His response? He kicked the referee in the head:

Since 2008, Taekwondo has made some big decisions about technology. The use of a PSS (Protector and Scoring System) enables hits to be automatically scored based on their strength. This is believed to reduce human error and encourage consistent and fair decisions on points. As judges still award technical points, the sport has also introduced Instant Video Replay. Referrals are made by a coach. This is a significant difference to sports such as hockey, tennis and cricket, where (regardless of any guidance from a coach on the sidelines) the ultimate responsibility for asking for a review falls to the players. American Football also has a Coach Challenge system, where coaches are able to signal a challenge within certain time parameters by throwing a red flag onto the field of play. The relative success of this system in North America has led to calls for similar protocols being introduced in ice hockey and basketball.

As mentioned, most sports that have video reviews available to players or coaches also give this option to officials if required. Both rugby codes have for some time successfully implemented video technology to help officials determine whether a try has been scored without any infringement. In some sports where performance is judged largely on aesthetic elements, there is varying use of the technology as an aid to scoring. For example, in figure skating, a technical specialist uses video replay to verify the elements being judged; this information is then used by the judging panel to ensure a double axel isn’t mistakenly seen as a triple axel and so on. When competitors may be spinning or jumping at great speed, you can see how this may encourage consistent scoring. In contrast, diving is judged entirely in real time, with the judges scoring a dive based entirely on their first impression of its execution. Perhaps there are arguments both ways here: in aesthetic sports, often a judge’s immediate intuitive visual perceptions may be extremely accurate. But what if a judge holds preconceptions or misjudges an element? To some extent, the question of video technology in these sports begins to challenge the essence of our responses to the sport itself.

The use and degree of acceptance of video reviews raises lots of questions for players and spectators alike. One of the key issues is the motivation behind using it. Is it there to avoid ‘howlers’ by officials? Is it for safety? Is it just to make things fairer and more consistent? This may vary across different sports and is certainly a contentious issue. Taking the example of tennis, I think it is fair to say that overall, Hawkeye technology has been a welcome introduction. The tension and drama is clear if you watch and listen to the crowd awaiting a Hawkeye decision for a crucial point. I also love seeing the line judge’s reaction. These officials get the vast majority of decisions correct and I know if my judgments were challenged and I had made the right call that I would really struggle to contain a look of immense smugness! The reaction of players is also interesting. Roger Federer is accepting of the technology’s accuracy, but believes it has taken something away from the human interaction and mental side of tennis. Meanwhile John McEnroe has said he thinks it makes tennis “more interesting”. I think this is interesting in itself: would Johnny Mac have achieved the same infamy for his on-court rants and personality if Hawkeye had been available during his playing career? He might have stopped yelling, “It was on the line!” quite so often if technology had overruled him regularly.

What about the consistency of the use of video reviews? The powers that be in football commonly argue against implementing technology on the grounds that it won’t be possible to use it at all levels of the game. For me, this argument falls down because there are already so many differences between elite and participation-level sport. The technology, finance, pressure, drama and interest at the top level of any global sport like football is a world away from a Sunday morning kickabout. I think your average five-a-side footballer accepts that goal line technology isn’t available to him/her and that the best goal he or she scores that weekend won’t be captured from ten different camera angles to see again later. I’m sure the naysayers who sit in the pub and discuss the ins and outs of football would have been all for video technology if Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in the 2010 World Cup had been counted after a review. We could have won the World Cup! On the other hand, Elise Christie, a GB short track speed skater, experienced the crueller side to video technology during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Replays are used to retrospectively review speed skating races to check for any infringements by competitors. By the letter of the law, Christie had broken the rules, but the patriotic British reaction was strongly on her side. We want things to be fair, but if it means ‘our girl’ loses, we don’t seem quite so keen.

Overall, I think that video reviews, challenges and referrals make sport more interesting, exciting and fair. There is no doubt that technology is changing the face of modern sport in many ways and the new opportunities available will raise further questions about the nature of what we are watching and how we play. I like the human element to sport. I am mindful that players can make mistakes or judgments that affect the outcomes of a game, and to some degree I’m not completely averse to a human influence being retained in the way sports are officiated. I want to see technology used as an aid to human officials, not as a replacement for them. I believe in fairness and consistency, but I don’t think feats of performance directed at pushing our physical and mental limits should be judged purely by robots and machines. In this day and age though, I think it’s crazy that a referee can send off the wrong player when millions of people watching on TV can see that he is making a huge mistake.