A player receiving the ball or a player in possession of the ball?

A ten minute read.
Somebody said to me not long ago that obstruction in hockey is a very complicated concept and is difficult to apply. I don’t think that is true, I believe it to be a very simple concept. The difficulty is in getting umpires to respond appropriately when they see it (they do see it) instead of pretending they don’t see it or that it didn’t happen. The execution of application isn’t anywhere near as easy as the theory of what constitutes the offence – and many umpires aren’t even coping with the latter.

Here is a simple and a very straightforward concept. You put something directly in the way of (on a path to the ball) therefore you obstruct a player moving on that path. Telling a player so obstructed that unless he (attempts to) go around the obstruction he isn’t obstructed, makes no sense at all. If he isn’t obstructed there is no need to go around. If to obstruct does not mean obstruction or obstruction does not mean to obstruct use another word/s.

Obstruction can (will) occur when a player, in possession of the ball or not, positions his body (or part of) or his stick, between an opponent and the ball, when the opponent is intent on playing at the ball (is moving to do so) and is prevented from playing directly at the ball by the blocking player when (but for this blocking/impeding/obstruction) the opponent would have been able to play immediately and directly at the ball.

Obstruction in a similar way is also the illegal prevention of a tackle attempt by ball shielding.The exception to the Obstruction Rule, the permit to receive the ball in a shielding position, without being considered immediately in breach of the Rule (the so called ‘New Interpretation’ introduced in 1993), does complicate things, but only because in 1994 the FIH RC amended the (sic) recently introduced explanation of what the receiving player should do once having received the ball (which had in the previous year been “must immediately move away or pass the ball away” and which defined the moment in time the change between being a receiver of the ball and a player in controlled possession of the ball had occurred).

The explanation was altered to read “having received the ball the receiver may move off in any direction – “except bodily into an opponent” – which told us nothing, as that statement was then neither prohibitive nor directive, and the instruction not to move bodily into an opponent, had anyway already been part of the Interpretation. The FIH HRB having considered comment received over the previous year about Rule interpretation once the ball had been received, had responded promptly, making matters worse, removing all other clear instruction.

If you think this is a rare occurrence think of the confusion that has been made of the once concise Free Hit (even the Rule name is wrong) Rules following the introduction of the Self Pass (which is now near useless when awarded in the opposing 23m area), or the impact on Rule 9.10 Falling ball, following the introduction of above shoulder play (itself far too ‘loose’ to be safe) We also have the brainless idea that all penalty following offence beneath a falling ball should be taken at the point the ball was falling, removing all deterrent from the action of raising the ball to fall into a contestable area.

We have since 1994 had years of ‘interpretation’ which insisted that even when holding the ball within the playing reach of the player intending to tackle, the ball holder can still move with it in a way that prolongs his shielding of the ball to an unlimited extent – even though he is no longer a player receiving the ball. So a receiving player is given special privilege which would not normally be granter to a player in possession of the ball who turned over it to block off an opponent as they approached that opponent (spin turn into opponent’s range) or as the opponent approached them.

Over the last ten years or so the distinction between the treatment of a receiving player and a turning player (as described) has blurred to the point where the two are indistinguishable in action. A player in possession of the ball is generally treated as a receiving player alone once (briefly) was. A receiving player is currently informed he is permitted to move off in any direction – which means exactly the same as may move off etc. but reads as if (suggests) that at one time he would not have been permitted to move off with the ball (the direct opposite of the true situation).

The Rule text itself does not help, the original (1993) Technical Interpretation occupied almost two pages of the rule-book and a part of that described (badly and inadequately) what a receiving player had to do when the ball was received. The application of the Obstruction Rule has been floundering ever since. The Rule Proper was not changed from the wording used prior to 1993 until 2004 (although there there were what were termed ‘housekeeping’ – order of word -changes made in 2001) The last amendment made was in 2009 (more on that below).

Prior to 1993 there was a reasonable consistency, excepting the few zealots who are always with us and have a ‘special take’ on some area of Rule, be it ball-body contact or the ball raised towards an opponent or propelled at the goal. Some of these zealots have occupied positions which allowed them to influence the coaching of umpires in their locality. I came across an instance near Frankfurt in 1968 while at a hockey festival. Umpires were penalising any turning about the ball even when there wasn’t another player within 10m. Players in teams from other parts of Germany assured me this peculiarity was entirely local, but beyond their control (their umpires simply followed along when umpiring home sides, so as not ‘rock the boat’ and perhaps cause their team to be unable to participate in the festival the following year. Bizarre, but I suppose it was eventually resolved. I didn’t meet the Umpire/Tournament Manager involved but he must have been a fearsome individual, everyone appeared very anxious not to upset him.

Obstruction wasn’t a problem pre-1993; it didn’t happen much among competent players (players avoided ‘giving’ obstruction) and on the odd occasion it did happen, it was dealt with. (I can’t recall ever having being penalised for obstruction in the many years when I was playing First or Second X1 club hockey and my memory is not poor.) Now obstruction is a near constant state of play when players are contesting for the ball or trying to maintain possession of it – and most (possibly all) of this obstruction is intentional (and certainly avoidable). The Rule wording concerning a receiving player now is :-A stationary player receiving the ball is permitted to face in any direction. Why only a stationary player – when that is not a complete true statement? There is nothing at all said about a receiving player once the ball has been received, but let us suppose we then move onto the second phase and we are presented with instructions for a player in possession of the ball- of which the second and third are as widely ignored as the fact that a ball body contact is not necessarily an offence.A player with the ball is 1) permitted to move off with it in any direction 2) except bodily into an opponent or 3) into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it. (my numbering)No matter for how long you have watched modern hockey matches, without having read that sentence in the rule-book (and many participants never look at a rule-book), you could have no idea that a player with the ball is supposed to comply with those directions. It’s hardly a long and comprehensive or difficult set of instructions, in fact I think it falls short of what should be given – it’s unclear. What, for example, does “move off” mean, does that mean move away to put and keep the ball beyond the playing reach of opponents ? It should do.

Moving into a position between an opponent and the ball (assuming the opponent is or is going to be by the time a turn is made within playing reach of the ball) or (in a similar way -but in a separate Rule clause – backing into; meaning backing with the ball or backing the ball, into the playing reach of an opponent while shielding it from him, are obstructive actions. Turning to block off a rapidly approaching opponent and shielding the ball from him (without moving away as appropriate), falls into the same category of obstructive actions – these all depend on distance from the opponent at moment of ball shielding and the timing of movements.

There is nothing wrong with imposing the body between an opponent and the ball if the opposing player is and remains beyond playing reach of the ball while this is done. The situation changes when an opponent gets to within playing reach of the ball. Getting this right is easy enough for an agile and mobile umpire who maintains good position – and a nightmare for the umpire who adopts a place to stand on the pitch and does not move more than a few meters from it during the match. A player in possession of the ball who is aware of the position of the umpire will use that knowledge to his advantage whenever the opportunity arises. Umpires should note that a player will play them as readily as they will play an opponent.

Currently the idea is that shunting along a side-line or base-line at walking pace while ‘protecting’ the ball is ‘acceptable’; even just dribbling the ball back in the general direction of the ball holder’s base-line at ‘snails pace’ is fine. In fact in these situation obstruction isn’t considered at all by most of our current crop of FIH Umpires, the entire focus shifts to “an onus on a tackler” (which was deleted after 2003 – it is no longer in the rule-book, but is still trotted out as if an existing obligation on the tackler to position to make a tackle), although of course the ball holder may be turning/ obstructing as much, if not more than he initially was, to try to ensure that a tackle remains impossible, that does not seem to matter, even though it should be fundamental in application of the Obstruction Rule.

Recently I watched a First XI match at Regional level, which was I suppose about two league levels below the second rung of the National League. I estimate there to have been on average one obstruction offence per minute throughout the game – nearly every time a ball-holder was challenged for possession of the ball. Not once was any penalty awarded because of any of theses offences.

I have come across various written statements by umpires that perhaps explains this. Many umpires have declared (in Internet hockey forums for example), with apparent sincerity, that a stationary player in possession of the ball cannot obstruct or that a moving player in possession of the ball cannot obstruct or that a player who is moving the ball cannot obstruct or that a player who has his stick in contact with the ball cannot obstruct. Taken together there is no situation in which obstruction can occur, but these many individuals never seem to disagree with each other or even compare notes, but cannot leave their own “cannot obstruct” mantra. Where their various beliefs (which are read without comment by many others) come from I can only guess (from the reinforcing forum group to which they contribute? Their own bubble? There is no Rule backing for any of them as stand alone statements)

Many umpires I believe read the Rule (the one given in the FIH published rule-book – which is the only legitimate Rule) but are very hesitant about applying it properly because they have seldom seen another umpire do so – and no umpire coach or ‘watcher’ has ever suggested that they should apply it. The Obstruction Rule is simply being allowed to die, and the game is the worse for that.

The Rule does of course need rewriting, but without intensive umpire coaching that alone will probably not be sufficient to rescue it or the game. As the part pointed out above in bold text illustrates it is easy to ignore Rule amendments and carry on as before. That amendment, the last made to the Obstruction Rule, was added in 2009, but has yet to enter the Rule application practice of a great many umpires. The part after the word “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.”, has not entered their conscious thought. The only part of it that which surfaces is that a opponent must be attempting a tackle for the ball (never mind that a tackle attempt is being actively prevented – i.e. the fundamental point, that seems to be considered unimportant). All player coaching at the moment seems directed towards maintaining possession by obstructing an opponent who intends to tackle for the ball, and umpires are receiving no help whatsoever to counter this trend – they are in fact encouraged to ignore those players who protest when they are obstructed or tell them they did not make a tackle attempt or were not in a position to make a tackle attempt. “More tea Alice?”

3 Comments to “A player receiving the ball or a player in possession of the ball?”

  1. Re: turning. Playing high school hockey in the late 80s, I (winger) chased down a long loose pass and stopped it just short of the back line, outside the circle. I ran past it, turned around, and was preparing to play it along the back line towards the goal, when I was penalised. I initially assumed the umpire must have thought the ball crossed the back line, but was told the penalty was for “turning on the ball”. At the time, the goalie and I were the only players even in the 25.

    By the time I started playing hockey more seriously, “turning on the ball” was no longer a rule, so I’ve never actually read and understood how it was supposed to be applied.

    Now, this is admittedly hockey umpired by high school teachers (and players!) with only a casual acquaintance for the game, but oddities in obstruction rules are not local to Germany.

    • What has led you to believe that turning on the ball is no longer an obstruction offence? It is an offence if there is an opponent within playing reach of the ball and intent on playing at it, who is prevented from playing at it only because of your turning action.

  2. Turning on the ball in free space has never been an offence whereas, obstruction always has been. The word “turning” became short-hand for “obstruction” and was transferred to any turning about the ball by those who could not be bothered to read the rule-book, which very clearly states that obstruction cannot occur if an opponent is not within playing reach of the ball – and – the part that ensures obstruction is hardly ever penalised these days – attempting to play at the ball.

    The attempting to play at the ball meme is applied even if a legal tackle attempt has been deliberately made impossible with ball shielding action by the player in possession of it.

    The key to understanding obstruction is to look at it as the illegal prevention of a tackle attempt, rather than the absence of a tackle attempt.

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