Field Hockey: Lizzie Watkins. Regrets are not enough

I posted this article more than six years ago and took it down after about six months exposure. I re-post an edited version, with videos added,  because this needs to be asked:-           What has been done since May 2012 to make hockey a safer sport? 

Answer, absolutely nothing. On the contrary, players are now permitted to play the ball and even take shots at the goal on the volley when the ball is above shoulder height – which they were not permitted to do six years ago. The only thing to have changed for the better is that the incredible notion that an ‘on target’ shot at goal could not be considered to be dangerous play, seems to have faded away during the last couple of years (that was an invention that should have been squashed by Circular from the FIH Executive immediately it appeared in 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, but nothing at all was done to dispel this silly meme or the stupidly devised ‘spin off’, that a raised shot that was wide of the goal was dangerous play, neither of which had any Rule support)

Nothing has been done to limit the way in which a ball may be propelled towards another player from beyond 5m and even the existing restriction on raising the ball towards an opponent within 5m (given in the Explanation of Application of Rule 9.9) is widely ignored. The video below shows an incident during the 2018 WWC in which an attacker raised the ball towards a defender positioned within 5m of the attacker, causing her injury, and the umpire awarded a penalty stroke. I have no idea why the Japanese defender was penalised at all.

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The umpire saw no reason to intervene during the play shown in the above video.

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The fact that the death of Lizzie Watkins was not caused by an opponent raising the ball towards her with a hit, scoop, flick or deflection (there seems in fact to have been a deflection up off her own stick) appears to have been accepted as an indication that all is well, rather than as terrible warning that even fit high level players are at risk from ball injuries when the ball is raised by an opponent with a stroke or deflection – just as other participants are.

Reports on the death of Lizzie Watkins in a field hockey incident.

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Aside from a mention earlier in the week on the WA Website that Lizzie was “Rushing to tackle” there has been no hint from those involved that the incident occurred during a penalty corner or that a drag-flicked shot was made. Later reports state that the incident occurred during open play.

There was also a regrettable incident, in a European Hockey League match in October 2011

From the Belfast Telegraph.

Geofrey Irwin

Godfrey Irwin might be said to be lucky. He was defending the goal during a penalty corner. The ball was propelled, with a drag-flick, high ‘through’ the out-running defender, who took evasive action.

Irwin, unable to track the ball from the moment it was propelled, because it was screened from him, had no chance to evade it. He knew the ball was traveling towards the goal but not the exact path of it.

He was wearing a mask but instinctively turned his head to protect his face and was hit on the back of his head just below his ear. A few centimeters higher and the strike could have been fatal to him.

He walked from the pitch unable to continue playing but unaware of the seriousness of his injury. (He had a fractured skull and a perforated ear drum and was later taken off work for a year by his doctors)

The game resumed with a penalty-stroke against Cookstown – for the ‘offence’ Irwin committed  –   being hit with a dangerously propelled ball.

I agree with Errol D’Cruz (Field Hockey.com article above) the penalty corner is now too dangerous to be continued in its present format (a statement I here base on the drag flick shot in the Irwin incident rather than the death of Lizzie Watkins, which D’Cruz mistakenly thought occurred during a penalty corner), but there is also a need for a definition of a dangerously played ball based on objective criteria, such as: 1) at a player and 2) within fifteen metres, 3) at a velocity that could cause injury, and 4) at above sternum height.

The emergence of the lifted reverse edge hit, so that it is now the preferred method of shooting at the goal in open play, makes such controls essential because the edge hit is generally not as well controlled, especially regarding height, as hit made with the flat of the face of the stick.

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Players should be given the facility to judge for themselves when they can evade the ball without ‘giving away’ a goal. At present players are being forced to self-defence when a high ball is played directly at them, because evasion of the ball is generally not seen as ‘legitimate’ by umpires unless the shooter is within five meters of the defender when the ball is propelled (and often not even then – see the first presented video above). When a ball may be propelled at 75mph / 150kph or more, five metres is a ridiculously short distance on which to base ‘dangerous’ – evasion is often not possible from more than twice that distance. To talk of skill level in determining if a ball of that velocity is (or even can be) dangerous is absurd.

Endangerment should be based on the propensity of the ball to inflict injury on any person it hits, not on the supposed ability of the person endangered to avoid being hit. The physiology of international level athletes, when it comes to the effects of ball impacts on flesh and bone, is the same as that as any other human being, and the difference in reaction times, between Olympic level athletes and the average healthy individual of the same approximate age, are statically insignificant.

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17th May 2012
I see from the news reports in Perth, Australia….

http://www.perthnow.com.au/sport/london-olympics/australias-olympic-hockey-players-shattered-by-death-of-perth-player-lizzie-watkins/story-fn9dj0r8-1226349325677

…that there is movement for the resurrection of a previous campaign to introduced protective helmets for field players.

I am sure that this would make the present situation re the dangerously played ball worse rather than better. Past experience has shown – as with the introduction of helmets and HD foam equipment for goalkeepers and the face-mask at a penalty corner for other defenders – that an increase in protective equipment results in a more cavalier attitude to endangering those wearing it.

I am also sure sports equipment manufacturers will be adding their support to the proposal, but I feel that the essential first step is to redefine the dangerously played ball so that a goal cannot be scored with a shot that has been lifted high and ‘through’ a defender. If a goal cannot be scored with a shot made ‘at’ an opponent in a dangerous way, but instead the shooter will be penalised, then attackers will stop making such shots.

This is the shot that hit Irwin on the head while he was positioned in front of the goal-line. At this point there has already been dangerous play; the ball was raised to above knee height directly at a defender who was within 5m of the shooter, compelling his evasive action.

Even if helmets are introduced that alone will not be sufficient action to reduce incidents of injury, it may indeed have the opposite effect. Changes to the Rules concerning the dangerously played ball will be needed even more if field-helmets are introduced.

Press article and comments from Perth Now

http://www.perthnow.com.au/sport/london-olympics/australias-olympic-hockey-players-shattered-by-death-of-perth-player-lizzie-watkins/story-fn9dj0r8-1226349325677

A DOCTOR is on a collision course with hockey officials over the sport’s lack of protective headgear after a young player died in Perth on Sunday.

Lizzie Watkins, 24, died after being hit in the head during a match at Curtin University when the ball deflected off her stick.

Melbourne doctor Denise Fraser said she would reactivate a campaign to make players wear protective headgear so such a tragedy would not be repeated.

“I am a hockey parent and I see a lot of kids hit with the hockey ball,” she said.

“A hockey ball … is not like a football or a soccer ball. It is more like a cricket ball, and when you are facing a cricket ball, you wear protective headgear.

“Goalkeepers wear head protection in hockey but the other players don’t. I have written to Hockey Victoria before and all they say is, ‘Thank you for the letter’. The rules don’t change.”

Hockey Australia chief Mark Anderson defended his sport’s safety record, saying the death was the first of its kind.

“We certainly believe hockey is a safe sport,” Anderson said.

 

Actual hockey player of Perth Posted at 3:14 PM May 11, 2012

This reply to the Doctor’s comment made in the above letter to the newspaper is typical of the other extreme – and based entirely on assertions that are false.

    As she said “hockey PARENT” never played the game to see wearing a helmet would get in the way more than anything and cricket players like goal keepers have the ball directly have the ball pelted at them at speed at head height. On the field the ball is meant to be kept below the knee unless flicked over head. People who don’t play the sport should keep stupid comments like that to themselves. If she’s that worried she can make her own kid wear one see how that goes for them…….. PS Wasn’t the ball that killed her was the ticking time bomb in her brain that got knocked enough to rupture. Get all facts before commenting.

Frank Watkins later e-mailed to inform me that his daughter had no skull weakness or especially vulnerable area like an embolism in her brain, she was physically a normal healthy individual.

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My reply to the newspaper comment. Martin Conlon of United Kingdom Posted at 1:08 PM May 17, 2012

    Actual Hockey player of Perth has obviously never defended a drag-flick at a penalty corner. The Rules do need to be changed, the dangerously played ball is at present an almost entirely subjective decision by an umpire and a common approach among umpires at present (sic)  is that there is no such thing as a dangerous shot on goal. Defenders need to know when they can evade the ball because it WILL be called as dangerous (just as they can with a first hit shot during a penalty corner that is raised too high) and attackers need to know that they will not be allowed to score with a ball that is directed overheight at (‘through’) a defender. If attackers were prevented from scoring with high shots made ‘through’ defenders the problem of the dangerously played ball would rarely arise. The number of near-misses and minor head and face injuries occurring at present, particularly during the penalty corner and when other shots at the goal are made is unacceptable. I am however skeptical of the merits of protective helmets. Past experience has shown that allowing protective wear – like the face-mask at the penalty corner – simply increases the degree of danger players protected with equipment are expected to accept.

Actual hockey player of Perth  Posted at 10:21 AM May 19, 2012

   Penalty corners are another story all together I believe in the higher grades the posties should have to wear a mask and with saying that everyone that plays hockey know the risk and still choose to put themselves in the line of fire. Rules state everything goes in the D IF you are having a direct shot at goal if you choose to stand there knowing full well that’s the rule they are there at their own risk. It’s not a wimpy sport if you can’t deal with it don’t play it and stay at home and knit.

Although the above views could reasonably be described as inaccurate and extreme they are not at all uncommon. I have heard the ‘acceptance of risk’ meme even from senior umpires, when common sense should ‘tell’ everyone that no player is obliged to accept the risk of dangerous play from an opponent, because dangerous play is an illegal action. Illegal actions can never be ‘accepted’ as a legitimate risk. Everyone of course accepts that there is a risk of injury or worse from purely accidental actions – actions like the one that killed Lizze Watkins – and that it is impossible to legislate for incidents of this sort. But raising the ball at an opponent from within 5m is legislated for and such action is always to be considered dangerous play – there is no leeway for a different interpretation and no exception to this Rule (the only additional proviso is applied only during a penalty corner when the ball is raised towards an out-running defender; in those circumstances the ball is considered dangerously played when it is raised at the defender at knee height or above – I think that this exception should be struck from the Rules and the raised ball propelled at an opponent from close range should be considered dangerous play in all circumstances. The Exception given in the UMB, that a ball raised towards an opponent at below half-shin pad height is not dangerous, contradicts the Rule and should also be struck out – as should other Rule contradiction in the UMB such as “forget lifted”)

The gentleman wrote  PS Wasn’t the ball that killed her was the ticking time bomb in her brain that got knocked enough to rupture. Get all facts before commenting”. I agree that it is helpful to have all the facts concerning the fatal incident, but with nothing else that he has written. I wonder where he got his ‘facts’ about the ‘ticking time bomb’, the nature of the incident and also his opinions about the Rules of Hockey “Rules state everything goes in the D IF you are having a direct shot at goal. The Rules of course state nothing of the sort, but if theses opinions are generally held, or held even by a minority,  then  hockey is not a safe sport. And it is not in ‘safe hands’ if administrators and Rule makers do not accept that it is potentially a very dangerous sport.

The drag-flick came into being as a way of circumventing the restriction on the first hit shot during a penalty corner, The FIH should address the circumvention of a Rule which was (and is) intended to curb dangerous play, not ignore it. (Aside from prohibiting the use of a drag-flick when taking a penalty stroke, the drag-flick is not mentioned in the Rules of Hockey, it is not even listed in the Terminology).

2 Comments to “Field Hockey: Lizzie Watkins. Regrets are not enough”

  1. Another short corner tactic I have seen to circumvent the “lifted shot” rule – one attacker strikes the ball while another deflects it almost as soon as it leaves the stick. It takes very little imagination to find ways that this can go “wrong” at the expense of the defenders’ safety.

    • I first saw that tactic used shortly after the height restriction on the first hit shot was introduced and I am sorry to learn that has reappeared. This sort of thing, and I include the deflection from closer to the goal, makes one wonder what goes on in the heads of some players/coaches. Sport is not or should not be about winning at any cost (particularly cost to other people).

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