Field Hockey Rules: Physical contact via obstruction, a lack of skill

I deleted more than forty articles from this web-blog at the beginning of the year, this one among them (which, seeing recent Tournament play, was clearly a mistake). I now restore it, slightly modified and with a different title, because I feel the subject matter is too important to ignore. The development of the skills involved in avoiding obstruction should be emphasised as fundamental to the playing of hockey and those skills should be encouraged and protected by correct umpiring  – which requires an understanding by umpires (and hence players) of what obstruction is and is not.  It is not simply a physical contact offence, physical contact is not an essential requirement for there to be an obstruction offence. To find out what obstruction is it is necessary to read the Rule and the provided Explanation of Application – all of it.

Rules of Hockey.

The ‘diminished’ Obstruction Rule. Shielding the ball. Hiding or ‘protecting’ the ball.    Lack of movement skills and footwork and stick-ball skills.

Cris Maloney and I have been in correspondence via email for a number of years. Many readers will be familiar with his Hockey USA Rule coaching videos on YouTube and his posts on under the tag

In a recent ‘Preseason Field Hockey Information’ presentation circular he introduces himself as follows:- ” I direct the national rules briefing videos given by Steve Horgan, write the rules comparison table, created the JUMP IN umpire training program, and I’m a field hockey umpire, author, and developer (programs and products). Over the last 40 years, perhaps the best label I’ve been given was simply field hockey evangelist. Those who are familiar with me know I have a special interest in advocating for field hockey umpires which in turn improves our sport.”

I too want to improve the sport for umpires – and for everybody else as well. I recently wrote to Cris when a question about stick obstruction was posted to FHF along with a video of the Final of the USA U15 National Indoor Championship, which contained the incident the question was asked about. I looked at the remainder of the video and it was obvious that the two young umpires who officiated that Final had no idea what obstruction was. This is the only Rule area where Cris and I do not broadly agree. He replied to me as follows:-

“Here’s the thing, it isn’t a foul to hide the ball with your body or stick. It is a foul to use your stick or your body to impede another player’s body or stick. Basically, that means there has to be contact…though no one admits it.”

That statement came as a shock I didn’t realise just how far apart we were on the meaning of the wording and the correct application of this Rule. With views like that held by those responsible for umpire coaching, it can be no surprise those two umpires had no understanding of the Obstruction Rule. That no one else admits how or explains why they are openly ignoring the very specific instructions given with the Explanation of Application of the Obstruction Rule is not a surprise.

Below is my edited (added to) reply to him.

Let’s take a look at the relevant Rule and the clauses to the Explanation of Application of this Rule to see how they fit with the following assertions made in your reply:-

“It isn’t a foul to hide the ball with your body or stick.

It is a foul to use either body or stick to impede an opponent’s body or stick.

For there to be an Obstruction offence there must be physical contact by the obstructing player (but that is not admitted).”


Rule 9.12 Players must not obstruct an opponent who is attempting to play the ball.

Players obstruct if they :

– back into an opponent

– physically interfere with the stick or body of an opponent

– shield the ball from a legitimate tackle with their stick or any part of their body.

Taking the above Explanation of Application clauses in reverse order. I believe “to shield” to have clear meaning and that meaning does not necessarily involve physical contact, the verb means ‘to protect’ or ‘to hide from’. Shielding or hiding the ball with the body or stick prevents (or delays) physical contact – between the stick of an opponent and the ball – it is done for that purpose: the Obstruction Rule specifically prohibits it.

As explained in previous articles about the Obstruction Rule, I read “from” in the third clause of the Explanation as “to prevent” because “from” in this context does not make grammatical sense, and I prefer to use the word legal rather than the ambiguous word ‘legitimate’ (which can mean legal or genuine or necessary depending on the context in which it is used). – shield the ball to prevent a legal tackle, with their stick or with any part of their body. does not change the meaning of the clause but is I think clearer language.

Physical contact is included in the criterion for offence, it is specified in the previous clause, physically interfere with the stick or body of an opponent but it is not the only criteria nor one that is essential for there to be an offence.

– back into an opponentcan mean back into physical contact with an opponent (but why then repeat the prohibition on physical contact with. “physically interfere with”). It can also mean to back into the playing reach of an opponent without making contact: I believe that is what is meant and why the word ‘interfere’ rather than ‘contact’ is used.

The clause means that a player in possession of the ball cannot legitimately ‘back into’ a position where a tackle attempt could be made but for being prevented by the positioning of the body of the player who is backing in i.e. the ball-holder is moving to position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing reach of the ball and demonstrating an intent to play at it.

This latter interpretation is supported (word for word) by the second prohibition in the clause below. It is the part underlined, which was added to the Explanation of Application in 2009 as a clarification – that backing into is not the only ball shielding action that is prohibited, any such positioning movement is prohibited if it results in the ball being shielded from an opponent – it was the last amendment made to the Obstruction Rule:-

– 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.

Expressing the above clause more simply, by leaving aside the physical contact already described in the first part (and also in a separate clause) and by not expressing this prohibition as an exception to the unnecessary advice that a player with the ball can move in any direction (a remnant of what was once an instruction to (not a choice given to but a demand made of) a receiving player to move away from opponents having received and controlled the ball – which should be restored), we arrive at:-

– A player with the ball is not permitted to move into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it.

Moving into (by for example ‘backing’ or alternatively ‘turning’) “into a position between” is not a prohibition of physical contact but specifically when in possession of the ball, of positioning to shield the ball from an opponent when within the playing reach of that opponent, thereby preventing an attempt to play at the ball.

It is therefore obviously a foul to hide (shield) the ball with either the stick or body to prevent or delay an opponent who would otherwise be able to play directly at the ball from doing so – by forcing a tackler to go around the body or stick (both or either of which may be the obstruction) of the ball holder in order to attempting to play at the ball – this clause in the Explanation of Application of the Rule declares it to be so.

Players obstruct if they shield the ball from a legitimate tackle with their stick or any part of their body.

or even more clearly:-

Players obstruct if they shield the ball, with their stick or any part of their body, to prevent or delay an opponent from attempting to play directly at the ball .

It is also a foul to lead the ball with the body (by for example dragging the ball behind the body (feet) while sideways on or directly facing an opponent and moving into the playing reach of that opponent) towards and into the playing reach of an opponent and it is also a foul to move i.e. position, so that physical contact is made or an opponent is obliged to retreat to avoid physical contact

But there does not have to be physical contact for an obstruction offence to occur. I cannot subscribe to the declaration that for an obstruction offence to occur there must be physical contact because it is plainly false. I agree with the second of the three statements Cris Maloney made in his reply to me: I vigorously oppose, as I must if I observe the Rule, the first and third of them. All his statements are justified by him as what top umpires are seen to be doing.

Watching the Rio Olympics it was clear that some umpires did penalise obstruction only when there was physical contact which was initiated by a player in possession who was shielding the ball while moving bodily into an opponent (would they admit to that when they don’t admit to misapplying Rule 9.8, Rule 9.9 and Rule 9.11 – especially where they overlap i.e. when the ball is lifted into an opponent ?). But it was also clear that other umpires did not penalise obstruction even when there was physical contact caused by a ball shielding player who was in possession of the ball,


despite there being not only an Obstruction Rule (as given in part above – the ‘third-party’ clauses have not been included here) but a separate Rule (9.3) which prohibit any physical contact (stick or body) and also another Rule (9.4) which prohibits impeding, (which however need not involve physical contact but may do so).

The GER player involved in the incident shown above (who himself had been guilty of a prior obstruction offence) was given a green card for voicing his opinion of the umpire’s failure to penalise the IND player for obstruction/moving into/barging.

The Obstruction Rule could be written without any reference at all to physical contact and could mention only a single purpose of it – to prohibit ball shielding or ‘hiding’ the ball, with the stick or body of the player in possession of it, to prevent an opponent who would otherwise be able to do so, from immediately playing directly at or attempting to play directly at the ball.

Ironically, now that obstruction (ball shielding) is generally being ignored as an offence, there is a great deal more physical contact than there was when the Rule was reasonably enforced, that is when attention was paid to the wording of the Rule Proper and the Explanation of Application given with it.

In the above passage of poor play the GER defender was penalised, apparently for a contact tackle, but then the ‘messy’ taking of the free-ball and the subsequent obstruction, positioning between / backing-in / barging, by the IND player was ignored. This kind of play and umpiring was not unusual in Rio, it was the norm. Not attractive hockey.

Not penalising obstruction does not significantly reduce stoppages, because tacklers must try to play the ball and are penalised for the slightest contact infringement. A second purpose of the Obstruction Rule is to reduce incidents of physical contact in contests for the ball by removing a cause of it – the frustration of a tackle attempt by ball shielding.

How to avoid giving obstruction? Put and keep the ball beyond the playing reach of an opponentmove off in any direction or pass the ball away in any direction (“off” and “away” are interchangeable words here but I feel “away” to be the clearer term) and if neither is possible, then have developed the ball-stick and movement skills to elude a tackle attempt while keeping the ball ‘open’. The latter option is the more difficult because it requires the development of a high level of stick-ball skill, which is why the unskilled (the lazy) need to find ways to avoid it. Hockey has been ‘dumbed down’ to allow participants with little skill to play it at a low level, which is fine, but players should not still be playing ‘dumbed down’ hockey once they have progressed significantly beyond the novice stage, they should be developing the skills that make the game enjoyable to play and attractive to watch.

An AUS defender almost knocked of his feet by a NED player who backed into him, while ‘protecting’ the ball and barged him out of the way soccer style – play continued.

Facts and truths are not the same thing, ‘the truth’ (according to the etymology of the word truth) is what is believed (by ‘everybody’), which may have nothing at all to do with the demonstrable facts of a matter e.g. the wording of a Rule. This is how faith is developed and how the ‘high priests’ (FIH Umpires) become highly respected practitioners, they practice, expound and develop ‘the truth’ – what they themselves believe or have been instructed to believe –  facts are an embarrassment to them.

If Cris Maloney is to base his future umpire coaching videos on what is seen of the Rule application of FIH Umpires he will have to start preaching that a player in possession of the ball cannot be guilty of a physical contact offence. It has already been declared (see article on stick obstruction that if a player has his or her stick in contact with the ball that player cannot stick-obstruct – which is a nonsense. Such nonsense is commonplace, it has also been declared and has been maintained to be fact by many people for a long time  that obstruction cannot take place if a ball-holder is stationary. (since 2003 to be exact because in 2002 there was an instruction to umpires in the rule-book to watch for (penalise?) players who stood still and shielded the ball when under pressure). But it has also been declared, with the same certainty, that if a player in possession of the ball is moving the ball with the stick or is moving with the ball no obstruction is possible: so taken together there is, according to those who make these declarations, no conceivable circumstance in which an obstruction offence could occur. And if these declarations are not to be taken together we are left to choose which ‘interpretation’ (invention) to believe without there being any evidence to support belief in any of them, while those who make these conflicting statements umpire accordingly and continue to argue amongst themselves.

We can be sure these umpires will not stop inventing their own version of hockey, but where do they go from permitting physical contact by a player in possession of the ball – which is a fundamental change to the way, according to its published Rules, hockey should be played ?

It was noticeable that the need to penalise physical contact by a tackling player i.e. a ‘break-down’ tackle, was emphasised in the FIH video produced about the role of the Umpire Managers in Rio (this action was however still frequently ignored during the tournament see the video below – in which a GB player makes a tackle on a USA player, in possession of the ball, from a position and in such a way (a forehand tackle from the ball-holder’s rear left side) that obstruction and physical contact were inevitable and unavoidable, but the umpire suspended the USA player for the contact).

Physical contact initiated by a ball-holder, didn’t however, despite being a frequent occurrence, (see AUS v NED video, the second one above, for a blatant example), get a mention in the FIH umpire coaching video.


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