What next, transition.

Is the player in the picture below receiving a pass or was he already in possession of the ball and then moved ahead of the it, to place himself between the defender and the ball? There is a huge difference. The second described action, which appears, from the positioning of the defender, to be what is happening, is a foul. The player with the ball might also be committing a physical contact offence.

Way back at the dawn of time (well actually in 1992) I sat a few seats away from the late George Croft, at the time Hon, Secretary of the FIH Hockey Rules Board, at a table during the AGM of Surbiton Hockey Club, of which we were both members, and listened to him expound to the assembled members on the introduction of an upcoming new interpretation of the Obstruction Rule.

I was troubled by what George Croft said because it was clear to me that what was being introduced was not a new interpretation of obstruction at all (what constituted obstruction was not being changed in any way) but an exception to the Obstruction Rule, a circumstance in which the Obstruction Rule did not immediately apply, followed by an explanation of how play was then to transition back to the usual application of the Rule.

But I sat there listened to what was said and to my subsequent regret did not voice by reservations about these proposals.

An odd thing about the “new interpretation” was that wording of the Rule Proper did not change at all. It remained:-

12.1 (m) A player shall not obstruct by running between an opponent and the ball nor interpose himself or his stick as an obstruction.

So what Rule wording the ‘new interpretation’ was interpreting was a mystery. The Obstruction Rule very quickly became what individual umpires said it was, based on very fuzzy criteria, and ‘interpretation’ became a ‘runaway train’

(In 2001 the FIH HRB asked the FIH Executive to issue a Circular pointing out to National Associations that nobody, no individual and no other committee but the FIH HRB, had the authority to change or issue a Rule or an interpretation of a Rule . The FIH Executive issued that Circular.

Some unfortunate later developments, such as the idea that a shot at the goal could not be considered dangerous play – a dangerous nonsense – and the ridiculous ‘2007 ‘gains benefit’ saga,  would probably have been avoided if the text of that Circular had been included in subsequent rule-books, but it was a Circular issued once and then rather quickly ‘forgotten’, especially by umpire coaches)

This new interpretation of the Obstruction Rule was set out over a page and a half of the Technical Interpretations section at the back of the rule-book and contained a number of ‘principles’. I will focus here on the only one that survives (sort of) in the current Obstruction Rule.


Now the principles are:

The receiving stationary player may be facing in any direction.(the only part that survives in the current Rule Explanation)
• The onus is on the tackler to move into position, i.e. usually
to move round the receiver, to attempt a legitimate tackle.
• Thus the tackler must not crash into a receiver and thereby
try to claim obstruction, any such action should be firmly penalised.

Having collected the ball, the receiver must move away in any
direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler).
Accordingly, the receiver is being allowed to collect the ball and
proceed with play – with the onus on the tackler to move into
position where an attempt can be made to play the ball without
contact with the receiver.

This new interpretation completely reversed the existing practice and also contained an obvious contradiction that no-one seemed to notice at the time (Maybe wilful blindness, but in those days no-one even considered challenging the Rule pronouncements of the FIH HRB). It should have been obvious to all that if a tackler has to move around a player who is shielding the ball from him, to reach the ball with his stick, then his direct path to the ball is being obstructed. No path other than a direct path to the ball was previously considered or is (sic) now suggested.

Stopping tacklers crashing into the back of receiving players while claiming to be obstructed was a welcome change and the safety aspect of this change was pushed hard, to the extent that the inconsistency mentioned above was ignored. It was declared that the new interpretation improved the game (ignoring that crashing into the back of an opponent was dangerous play and a physical contact offence anyway and should not previously have been rewarded ).

It certainly did, there was a vast tactical improvement as back-passing, always an option but hardly explored at all before this point (a notable exception was the German national team under Paul Lissek), became part of the usual tactics of high level teams. It took several years before back-passing became common in club hockey especially below First-Team level (but by then the Obstruction Rule, as was, had all but disappeared). But this ‘interpretation’ also created a muddle out of what was once a clear Rule.

Now we come to the text below the third bullet point. The transition :-

Having collected the ball, the receiver must move away in any direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler).

Umpires found this difficult to apply and inconsistencies in application appeared. Some umpires penalised if the receiver dwelt on the ball in control longer than was considered necessary to “immediately” pass it away or move away with the ball and others didn’t (how the player was to move away and the umpire transition to the ‘non-receiving’ application of the Obstruction Rule became contentious). The result was that in 1995 a further change was considered necessary to the new interpretation – a change of one word was made – it was a change that destroyed the Obstruction Rule.

Having collected the ball the receiver may move away in any direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler).

The change from “must” to “may” replaced a clear instruction to take a particular action – move away – with a choice; this vital aspect of the Rule was no longer directive or prohibitive, (the receiver could choose not to move away. and there then developed a ‘school of thought’ that a stationary ball holder wasn’t doing anything and therefore could not be obstructing) in other words there was no application of the Obstruction Rule in these circumstances and very quickly in any other as players already in controlled possession of the ball were treated as if they were receivers and they turned on and with the ball at will in contested situations (Many spectators of ‘the modern game’ – including match commentators – have no idea these actions are fouls because they have never seen such play penalised as it should be).

By 1998 George Croft found it necessary to point out to participants in the Preface of the Rules of Hockey that “despite what some people think, there is still an Obstruction Rule”

In 2004 the rule-book was reformatted and largely rewritten. The entire section called by that time Rules Interpretations was simply deleted. Yet umpires who had been trained when it was extant still continued to apply the Obstruction Rule as if this deleted interpretation was still in force. Many umpire coaches also continued to coach new umpires as if this deleted interpretation was extant – and still do. Only last week someone (an umpire) referred, in a comment to me, to the onus on a tackler to move around an opponent who is shielding the ball. I am not surprised this easy way of avoiding applying the Obstruction Rule is still ‘wheeled out’, because it is easy, but it hasn’t been in a rule-book for fifteen years

(the requirement to “go around” was always ridiculous and unfair as there was nothing done to prevent the ball holder from moving his body or the ball or both, to maintain a shielding position – and in any case moving to one side of a ball holder presented him with the opportunity to spin away from the tackle attempt in the opposite direction and leave the tackler behind – so it was a very foolish action for a defender to take unless the ball could be intercepted before it reached an intended receiver.

The result was (and still is) that when a ball holder received the ball and stood still or tuned over the ball to shield it, defenders tended to step back and stand off, often out of playing reach of the ball so that they would not be ‘caught out’ by a sudden turn and acceleration – and we got static and congested situations developing. It also very quickly led to the ugly tactic of holding a ball in the corner of the pitch or against a sideline, generally to run time or wait for support or opportunity to ‘win’ a side-line ball or a free ball by forcing a foot contact !!!).

The current ‘instruction’ to a receiver of the ball has been further weakened by (in 2004) replacing the word “away” (which was at one time taken to mean away from and beyond the playing reach of the player intending to tackle) with the word “off” (which does not mean “away”) and later replaced “may” (I believe in 2006) with a term that means exactly the same thing, “is permitted to” (this gives the impression that being permitted to move off (or away) was something new that was not previously encouraged rather than something that had previously been demanded).

  The receiving action and the transition to normal Rule application were then also split into separate paragraphs or Rule clauses.

A stationary player receiving the ball is permitted to face in any direction.

A player with the ball is permitted to move off with it in any direction except bodily into an opponent or into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it.

A stationary player is mentioned in the Rule Explanation because prior to September 1993 it would have been necessary for a closely marked receiver to make a lead run to get to a position beyond the playing reach of an opponent to receive the ball, thus avoiding the possibility of immediately being penalised for obstruction if he remained stationary (this is now long forgotten). Receiving the ball was a skill that prior to 1993 demanded far more of a receiver than just the ability to take controlled possession of the ball, he also needed to move to create the space to receive.  Skilled receiving players could however easily make a charging marker/tackler look foolish and take advantage of the space he had just vacated.

The reading (and understanding) of the second part of what is permitted usually stops just before the word “except”. “A player with the ball is permitted to move off with it in any direction…..” I have lost count of the number of time I have been informed in comment that a player with the ball can move in any direction and does not have to move at all but can stand still shielding the ball to prevent a tackle attempt – and if moving the ball cannot obstruct – which is nonsense. The words “except bodily into an opponent or into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it.” are vital to correct application of the Rule (I would prefer “demonstrating an intention to play at the ball”).  The wording after “except bodily into an opponent” (in blue bold above) was added in 2009 and was the last amendment made by the FIH RC to this Rule. It was an attempt to correct much of the previous damage done, but it is widely ignored.

Now a couple of visual examples. It is assumed that the near player in each of the pictures below is receiving the ball, The question between 1993 and 1995 would have been (if there had been any way of widely asking such a question at that time) “At what point should the umpire be considering an Obstruction Offence?” The answer would have been “As soon as the receiver has controlled the ball and has had opportunity to pass it away or move away with it, but does not do so” That is still the case but it is not unusual to see captions on photographs stating ball shielding to prevent a tackle attempt, as if that is a legitimate action or to hear match commentators on video praising ball-shielding as a great skill – it isn’t, it’s a dumbing down of the skill required to play hockey and it is not Rule compliant.


Now in 2019 an umpire might consider penalising the player in possession if he moves backwards into physical contact with a defender, but if that did happen an umpire would be just as likely to penalise the defender for the contact.

What should be happening when a player in possession backs while shielding the ball towards a defender who is in a balanced position and intent on making a tackle for the ball, is that the ball-holder should be penalised for Obstruction (illegally preventing a tackle attempt by imposing his body) as soon as he moves the ball, while shielding it, to within the direct playing reach (an objective distance generally about 1.5m) of that defender.

Would such application lead to an increase in Obstruction offences and whistle blowing? Yes of course, until players once again learned how to play field-hockey instead of a strange version of hurling or soccer that did not require much stick-work ability. That might take a couple of weeks. Prior to 1993 (when players did not have the advantage of the protection of a Rule exception when receiving the ball and frequently needed to make lead runs to create space) most players managed to play hockey without often getting themselves penalised for obstruction. I managed to play entire seasons without once being penalised for this offence. It was no more difficult for a fit and alert player to avoid offending via obstruction than it was avoiding being in an off-side position – yes we had that too in the ‘good old days’.





6 Comments to “What next, transition.”

  1. Martin,

    There are a number of instances where the rules of hockey (as played and umpired) bear little relation to what is written in the rulebook.

    * obstruction (your current pet topic)
    * foot-ball contact
    * dangerous play (though you have pointed out that the current rulebook isn’t necessarily very clear in several points)
    * free hits for dangerous play (out here in Aus, the “rules” are that the free hit is taken where the danger “occurred”, while the rulebook says “where the *action that caused* the danger occurred. Rulebooks about a decade ago gave specific examples, though these also were often followed very “loosely”)

    From my distant perspective, what seems to happen is that the “Rule of Hockey” get changed, and then a bunch of senior umpires decide how the “Rules of Hockey” will be applied to the “rules of hockey” (if at all). I’ve had discussions where I’ve asked how locally senior umpires get from the Rules to the rules as applied, and received responses that only make sense if you start from the assumption that the “rules as applied” are correct and seeking to find an accommodation with the Rules.

    I’m interested in the politics of the situation.
    * Are the FIH rules committee and the senior umpires not working in unison, such that a somewhat adversarial relationship exists? (If so, why doesn’t the FIH replace one or the other body to resolve the problem?)
    * Are the rules committee primarily interested their document, and happy to leave actual rules of play up to the umpires?
    * Do the rules committee actually agree with the senior umpires, but don’t want to create the impression of change by changing the rulebook to correspond to actual practice?
    * Are most people actually happy with the status quo and the “Rules” exists only to meet a perceived psychological or legal need and not actually attempt to mandate how play is conducted?

    Your thoughts?

    • Until 2004 you would have said that the dangerously played ball was the one I had a “bee in my bonnet” about, but in that year the FIH RC changed the Rule “a player shall not raise the ball at another player”, (which doubled-down on the forcing Rule) by deleting it. They, bewilderingly, transferred that Rule to become part of the Explanation (a new term for what had previously been called Guidance) of Rule 9.9.the intentionally raised hit (a Rule which is circumvented with forget lifted – think danger), but with two alterations. Firstly, raising the ball with a flick or scoop was specified (seemingly and oddly excluding deflections and raised hits). Secondly a 5m limit was imposed. It wasn’t long, it happened almost overnight, before it was ‘practice’ to declare that a ball could not be propelled dangerously at another player if propelled from beyond 5m of that player. This was clearly not the intent of the FIH RC because “Legitimate evasive action” remained in place as the definition of a dangerously played ball and there was no distance limit placed on LEA – and there still isn’t. The new practice ‘opened the door’ for the head high drag-flick and as this led to excitement, spectacle and more goals. The FIH RC did absolutely nothing to control the drag-flick (they haven’t yet even bothered to define it) and the stark contrast between the ruling of a first hit shot made during a penalty corner and a first shot made with a flick came into being, despite Rule 13.3.m declaring that no flick or scoop shot at the goal should be made in a dangerous way (circumvented with the 5m limit previously mentioned). The inevitable flood of questions to Internet hockey forums about a dangerous shot at goal resulted in these forums closing topic threads on the subject down very quickly and one of the most popular fieldhockeyforum.com now has a daft standard reply, composed by a confused moderator, pinned to the top of the section on the umpiring of the outdoor game. George Brinks who now runs fieldhockey.com ran a forum called talkinghockey.net in which he was constantly warning umpires of the possibility of legal action taken by a defender if they allowed dangerous shots at the goal. He dropped the subject completely after 2008 when during the Beijing Olympics the nonsensical idea that an on-target shot at the goal could not be considered dangerous play was introduced, seemingly by an Umpire Manager.

      Your first question is one I have asked the FIH on more than one occasion. I have frequently pointed to the declaration in the 2002 Rules of Hockey:-
      In the past, in addition to the Rules Interpretations included in the
      Rules Book, briefing papers have occasionally been prepared
      primarily for umpires at international tournaments. However, we all
      play the game by the same set of Rules so interpretations in the
      Rules Book should be as complete as possible. Additional papers
      should be unnecessary. Accordingly, Appendix B (Rules
      Interpretations) in this 2002 edition has been significantly revised.
      It now incorporates the other briefing papers referred to above. At
      the same time the layout and some parts of the text have been

      I read that to mean that what is now known as the UMB (Umpire Managers Briefing for FIH Umpires at Tournaments) would no longer be required because all instruction would be contained in the rule-book. Instead we now have what is printed in a separately published UMB (produced by the FIH Umpiring Committee)’over-ruling’ what is given in the Rules of Hockey (again forget lifted-think danger, which has led to the intentionally raised hit, supposedly illegal unless a shot at goal from within the opponents circle, being utterly ignored unless someone within 5m is injured with such a raised ball – unless this occurs in the circle).
      A FIH Executive Circular issued to National Associations in 2001 instructed them that nobody could issue or amend any Rule or the interpretation of any Rule except the FIH Hockey Rules Board (later named the FIH Rules Committee). That instruction was very quickly forgotten. When I pointed these two facts out to the latest in a series of people who have held the title Development Director and said that the publication of the UMB should cease I was told I was in a minority of one in holding that view. I am presently in correspondence with the latest incumbent Jon Wyatt about a letter sent to Dutch Umpires by the KNHB which instructs them that legitimate evasive action does not apply to a defender positioned on the goal-line. He assures me, after inquiring, that neither the FIH RC or the FIH Executive have approved any such change, but from what I have seen of Dutch League hockey on YouTube recently, Dutch umpires are following the KNUB instruction (of course they want to be appointed to umpire again) . So yes umpires (Umpire Associations) consider themselves a law unto themselves and will ignore the Rules of Hockey when it suites them.
      To get an idea of the undermining of the FIH Rules Committee by a Senior Umpire Coach take a look at the umpire coaching sessions conducted by Jan Hadfield which are on video via YouTube. This is a 2017 sample I have edited with comment https://youtu.be/5C8a2QNpPRA it’s painful.

      I don’t know if people are happy with what umpires are doing to the Rules (I am certainly not) or why the FIH RC does not assert itself, but there does seem to be resistance to much needed change following the false perception that the FIH have made dozens of changes to the Rules in the past few years (when in fact they have made very few, compared for example with the period 1994-1999 – but interpretations from umpires have been a run away train). I don’t believe the FIH RC are happy about being led by the nose by umpiring practice, it was after all at the behest of the FIH HRB that the 2001 Executive Circular about authority was sent to National Associations, but without the wording of that Circular being placed in the current rule-book, umpires are going to continue to believe it is part of their task to interpret the wording of the Rules of Hockey rather than applying the wording (as literally and commonly understood in normal use) to the actions of players to determine compliance. Who, for example, would believe that an obstruction could not exist if the body of an opponent positioned in the direct path to the ball was not circumvented by a player attempting a tackle? Surely the need to circumvent an obstruction (a ball shielding opponent) demonstrates the obstruction, circumvention would otherwise be otherwise unnecessary?

      The entire rule-book needs to be rewritten but I do not now know anyone or any group I would trust to do the job.

  2. Good article. Coaches and should go through this article

  3. “constantly warning umpires of the possibility of legal action taken by a defender if they allowed dangerous shots at the goal.”

    I also have a legal concern here. Imagine a lawsuit following a player getting injured by a raised ball. If the umpire has been following the (unofficial) directives of the local umpiring managers rather than the what is written in the rules, is he then personally liable for negligence when some lawyer gets hold of the rulebook and points out that he has not been enforcing the rules as written?

    Obviously this varies by jurisdiction.

    • I am not a professional lawyer Andrew but I did study the law of Tort to ‘A’ level GCE back in the dark ages. My guess is that as an umpire is obliged, according to what is written in the rule-book, to know and apply the Rules he or she cannot completely escape responsibility using an “only following orders” defence, but that the Local Umpiring Association, in particular the Umpire Coach (who in turn may have been “following orders”) who instructed the match umpire would also be liable. But this sort of reverse cascade has to have reasonable limits, it could not continue back up to the point where the the defence is “we were just following what all FIH Umpires are doing, so the FIH are to blame”, not least because the FIH issue a rule book which contradicts that stance.

      But where the FIH have been advised of malpractice and taken no action they could also be held responsible in part. Where a National Association has written to Local Umpiring Associations and issued an instruction that is clearly contrary to a Rule clause eg. Legitimate evasive action is not to be applied in a given circumstance, such as a defender being positioned on the goal-line (as has happened) the initiating culprits would be clear, but all involved in the subsequent application of that directive would probably be required to bear decreasing degrees of responsibility. The Courts are used to dealing with situations where there is contributory negligence and apportioning damages accordingly. Lawyers normally take action against the party or parties they believe have the funds to meet a claim for damages and have a degree f culpability. As both the KNHB and the FIH can be proven to be aware of the situation of which I have complained I guess it would be against those bodies that a claim would be initiated if a defender in Holland was seriously injured in circumstances shown to have arisen from the application of a contrary to Rule instruction. Demonstrating the link between the negligence in Rule application and the injury, would probably be the main difficulty for the plaintiffs. I think it would need to be shown that the player propelling the ball in a dangerous way had good reason to believe that the umpire would not penalise him or her for doing so, that is that the attacking player engaged in what he or she believed was a legitimate action. Those umpire who have posted on-line, in hockey forums for example, that a defender positioned on the goal-line causes danger or is “asking for it” put themselves in a vulnerable position if they then follow those principles when umpiring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: