Field Hockey Rules: Physical contact and Obstruction

Edited  27th May 2016

There seems to be an assumption being made – which has no Rule support –  that obstruction/shielding of the ball requires physical contact to be initiated by the ball holder before an obstruction offence can occur when the ball is being shielded by the player in possession of it from an defending opponent within the defender’s playing reach and the ball holder is moving into/towards the defender.

This is the opposite to the attitude taken to a player who is trying to tackle for the ball, where not even an attempt to tackle can be made from a position where there will be (may be?) physical contact (Rule 9.13). This is heavily slanted in favour of the player in possession of the ball, who has the advantage anyway – in other words the current ‘interpretation’ (of what part of Rule 9.12 exactly?) is unfair; the balance, which is supposed to exist, between Rule 9.12 and 9.13 has been lost.

What a receiver of the ball should do, having received the ball, has been ‘watered down’ since 1993 (must, may, is permitted to) to the point where there is now no direction/instruction and no prohibition at all. In fact there is now no difference ‘in practice’ between what a player in controlled possession of the ball is permitted to do and the way in which a player in the act of receiving the ball is permitted to shield it. What was permitted only to a receiver of the ball, while receiving and controlling it, has become (by ‘interpretation’) what is allowed in the play of a player already in controlled posession of the ball – the exception has become the Rule i.e. there is no Rule. 

The changes due to the ‘new interpretation’ which made such a huge tactical difference to the game after 1992/3 (a time before a great number of the current high level players were born and certainly before the vast majority of them had any Rule knowledge at all), are insignificant compared with what a ball holder is now being allowed to get away with.


I write “get away with” because the only significant addition (*) to the Obstruction Rule since 1993 was made in 2009, to clarify (not successfully) with an unannounced clause extension in the explanation of application (no reference was made to this change in the Preface of the rulebook), which states that a player in possession of the ball may not move to position between an opponent and the ball when that opponent is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play at it.

*(there were extensive deletions of necessary guidance (and of all of existing Interpretation) made in 2004 when the rule book was rewritten in a metric page size format; nearly all instruction concerning a receiving player, and what that player should do after having received and controlled the ball, the foundation of the ‘new interpretation’, simply disappeared, and what is left – that a stationary receiver may be facing in any direction – does not make much sense in isolation

The present interpretation, which I think is perverse and not what the (sic) Rules Committee intended in 2009, seems to be that if such ball shielding occurs before an opponent intent on making a tackle comes to within playing reach of the ball (or is moved/backed into/towards by the ball-holder when beyond playing range), which is not contrary to Rule,  then that shielding can legitimately continue after the ball holder is within the playing reach of an actively defending opponent – but such ball shielding is contrary to Rule.

an opponent cannot legally attempt to play directly at the ball because it is being shielded by the body of a ball-holder : such ball shielding cannot therefore be legitimate as it obstructs the path of an opponent to the ball, but the (non) application of the Obstruction Rule at the moment is to ‘say’ to a player in possession of the ball that it cannot be shielded from an opponent unless he or she feels like shielding it, certainly no action is taken by umpires to deter ball shielding or enforce the Obstruction Rule; by enlarge the Rule is simply ignored.

The remedy (and there needs to be a remedy to restore balance to the contest between attackers and defenders) is simple; clearly prohibit ball shielding when a player who is in controlled possession of the ball is or moves to become or is closed on to become within the playing reach of an opponent who is demonstrating an intent to make a tackle – thus requiring movement in good time away from the playing reach of a tackler to avoid an obstruction offence – in other words demanding player movement and ball movement, that is ‘game flow’, rather than ball shielding and the blocking off of opponents, often with the ball-holder in a static or near static position: that is apply the Rule as it is intended to be applied. 

I believe that this is how the Obstruction Rule was intended to be applied anyway pre 2009 and certainly post 2009. (prior to 2004 Rules Interpretation included the advice to umpires, that if a defender could have played at the ball directly but was prevented from doing so only because of the movement and/or positioning of the player in possession of the ball, then that defender was obstructed  – clear and simple) This advice seemed to have been deleted because it was contrary to a different agenda, that is to make hockey look similar to soccer so that television viewers could understand it: the Rules that got in the way of this aim were/are considered unimportant. 


The 2009 amendment was made to try to address the misjudgement (lack of response) which had by that time become prevalent and which was basically ignoring that the ‘new interpretation’, (which was in fact an exception to the Rule rather than an interpretation that in any way changed what obstruction was – and is) allowed temporary ball shielding only to a receiving player and then only while that player was receiving and controlling the ball prior to moving away (from?) with it or immediately passing it away.  

The original (1992/3) intention was to enhance game flow and encourage tactical development (particularly backpassing and the opening of angles) by preventing/deterring tacklers from demonstrating ‘obstruction’ by clattering into receiving players (who were previously technically often illegally shielding while receiving the ball if they had not made a lead run to create the space necessary to get beyond their marker’s playing reach). The need to make a lead run away from markers to create space in which to legitimately receive the ball was eliminated post 1994 (not entirely a good thing, lead runs are useful for other space creating and angle changing purposes and those skills are lost as many players have never needed to develop them for another purpose – in order to receive the ball

Now, at the other extreme (Rules always seem to be applied at one extreme or the other – without common sense – there can be no denying that the pre-1992 interpretation was extreme ), we have players in controlled possession of the ball using their body to shield the ball past opponents and even clattering into opponents who are trying to position to tackle or to block the ball and it is the defenders who are being penalised (for contact) not the ball holder who is making illegal use of the body and usually initiates any physical contact, the defender often being stationary or even trying to back out of the way.

Doing the direct opposite of what was unfairly done before is not usually a sensible compromise, it just reverses the direction of unfairness.

Here is a fairly recent example (2015) of deliberate obstruction by a defender which should have been penalised with a penalty stroke. The contrast between this and the ‘automatic’ penalising of any ball/foot contact, even when there is no intent and no advantage gained from such contact, is astonishing.

But it is not a new development.

This obstruction was eventually penalised when a second attacker was also obstructed at the same time as the first one continued to be, the much delayed penalty was not however a penalty stroke for a deliberate offence, as it should have been, but a penalty corner.



And it just keeps getting worse and worse, as attackers also explore and expand ball shielding options – which appear to be unlimited:-


In each case opponents move out of the way of ball-holders, moving bodily towards them , to avoid physical contact: while the ball holder is moving into the defender’s playing reach or when already within their playing reach moving towards them. It seems to be the case that if a defending opponent ‘holds ground’ in these circumstances it is they who are likely to be penalised for any body contact made and not the ball-holder who is clearly the offender: this is wrong.


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