Field Hockey Rules: Pictures and words

Edited 11th August 2017

It is most peculiar how something which is just an oft repeated personal opinion (which, in my view, is mistaken) becomes something “we” have established.

There is a great deal of academic and scientific interest in ‘precisely nothing’ (an acceptable definition of ‘nothing’ has been avidly sought for years) when all the time all these people had to do was to look at a photograph of a hockey match in progress. But, sadly, a photograph of an incident during a hockey game is not picture of precisely nothing and one can ‘tell’ a great many things from a photograph.

redumpire began dismissing photographic evidence before it became possible to embed video clips into posts (and video clips were always, in his opinion, selected to portray a ‘slant’ – of course they are, but the fact that videos show that a Rule has not been applied in particular incidents, does not mean it usually was properly applied by that umpire – or others – in other similar incidents. An absence of evidence could be said to be precisely nothing. I would be delighted if someone could post a video clip showing an umpire correctly penalising a ball-holder for obstruction, but it has to occur in a videoed match before a video of it can exist).

I prefer the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” It is relatively easy to demonstrate that the wording of Rule, or the interpretation of the wording of a Rule, is being flouted by showing pictures and videos. It is true that a reasonable hypothesize about what happened just prior to and/or just after a photographed moment may have to be made, but that does not mean a silly wild guess is necessary, but that intelligent speculation is required,  and that must be based on experience and what is seen in the picture. In the matter of body contact (which is what the above remark from redumpire was about) and many cases of obstruction, a reasonable deduction can be made from the positions and obvious balances of the players – and any obvious physical contact.

For example, it is obvious from the picture to the left  (by looking at the ball holder’s  feet and knees) in which direction he is moving and where his next step will position him relative to the player trying to make a tackle. It is also obvious that the defender is within playing reach of the ball and is demonstrating an intention to play at it. In fact an obstruction offence (with leg and stick) is already occurring and an umpire need not wait for the ball holder (in this case a forward attacker) to be fully positioned, bodily between the defender and the ball (blocking him off completely) – as he will do, before calling the offence.

This is not just guesswork – like ‘find the ball’ contests usually are – it is deduction. The attacker’s balance dictates his next movement, he cannot next lift his left foot off the ground, he must first place his right foot on the ground, and to do that he needs to complete his step to his right. One could say that the attacker may not be going to move to the right with the ball, he will plant his right foot and then may move (turn) to his left; his stick position indicates this is an easy possibility, he will nonetheless obstruct the defender, already has done so, with the positioning seen in the picture (see Rule Explanation below). Did he reach that position legally? It’s hard to see how he could have done.

All but one of the following pictures shows an incident of obstruction, none of them were penalised and none of the original captions to the photographs mentioned obstruction , that would be very ‘old fashioned’.

The right side picture in the middle of the page above, shows an obstructing player (in red) who has not prevented a tackle, the ball has been knocked away from him by the defender. but he will no doubt continue to obstruct the tackler and may regain possession of the ball while doing so.

In the picture bottom right the CAN attacker makes contact with the BRA defender, with an elbow to her face and a hip to her arm, when turning into her just outside the circle: It might as well have been a soccer match for all the notice taken, by the CAN player, of the Rules concerning obstruction and physical contact. The aim of making hockey similar to soccer has been achieved, but no good will come of it.

Interpretation of the actions seen in the above photographs must be slanted to convey what is seen.

And now the wording of the Rule and an interpretation of the Explanation of Application provided in the rule-book, or rule-apt.

(I see that the recently released apt is going to be updated automatically – that is very worrying; the ‘glanced at once’ rule-book in an umpire’s bag had the merit of not changing after he or she had skimmed it. The days when the Rules Committee – the HRB – met once a year to discuss changes to the Rules were very frustrating because the process of change was so slow, but the possibility that the Rules may be ‘updated’ (reinterpreted) almost weekly, gives the impression of a lack of forward planning and proper consideration for the consequences of any previous change (to interpretation not to Rule), that may be made – there is still a procedure for Rule change which must be observed. The ability to ‘update’ interpretation at any time facilitates Double-think and Doublespeak).

The present Obstruction 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.


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 player who runs in front of or blocks an opponent to stop them legitimately playing or attempting to play the ball is obstructing (this is third party or shadow obstruction). This also applies if an attacker runs across or blocks defenders (including the goalkeeper or player with goalkeeping privileges) when a penalty corner is being taken.

The Rule does not tell us what obstruction is. So here is a common sense definition:-

Obstruction is illegally preventing an opponent playing at the ball when, but for the illegal action, that opponent would have been able to play at it.

The Rule then outlines the illegal actions that cause obstruction to occur

– back into an opponent. This means that a player while in possession of the ball cannot back into the playing reach of an opponent who is demonstrating an intent to play at the ball – that is illegal (see explanation below).

physically interfere with the stick or body of an opponent.  Besides Rule 9.13, which prohibits illegal (contact) tackling, there are two other Rules (9.3 and 9.4) which forbid any physical contact with an opponent, so it is fairly safe to assume that this prohibition refers to physical contact by a player in possession of the ball,  by for example, backing into physical contact with an opponent, thus causing an obstruction, or obliging an opponent to give way to avoid physical contact, again an obstruction, because that prevents the opponent making a tackle attempt. These two points were at one time emphasized in the instruction/guidance about what a player, who received the ball, then could and could not do ( or previously, was obliged to do) – nowadays that is not very clear.


A stationary player receiving the ball is permitted to face in any direction. This has been badly put. What is a fact and what is meant is that a player when receiving the ball may be facing in any direction, because, when a player is receiving and controlling the ball, the Obstruction Rule is suspended, it does not apply to this player.

It does not matter whether the receiving player is stationary or is moving at the time the ball is received. ”Stationary player” is a remnant of a previous version of Rule Guidance which pointed out that a receiving player could not obstruct even if stationary when receiving the ball. This needed to be pointed out, because prior to this change a receiving player would be obliged, if closely marked, to make a lead run to get sufficiently far away from a marker (beyond his or her playing reach) to receive the ball without being immediately penalised for obstruction as the ball was received. (This guidance was later ‘misread’ to create the invention that a stationary player could not be guilty of obstruction when in possession of the ball – the opposite of what the Rule Guidance indicated).

The ‘new interpretation’, introduced after 1992/3, which was in fact not a different interpretation of obstruction (what constituted obstruction did not change – and still has not changed) but an exception to the Rule: it relieved a player receiving the ball from the task of creating the space previously necessary to do so. (There was a lot of talk immediately after the introduction of the ‘new interpretation’ (the exception) of a receiving player being used as a high pivot in the style of basketball or soccer, immediately ‘bouncing’ the ball back to supporting and overlapping attackers – no one envisaged the static blocking or backing into the opponent’s circle while shielding the ball, that now takes place – it was simply inconceivable. It should still be seen as an unacceptable action i.e. considered contrary to Rule – but isn’t)

What a receiving player had to do once the ball was received and controlled (a very brief time in high level hockey) was previously set out, but like A stationary player receiving the ball is permitted to face in any direction, what was previously known as Rule Guidance has been ‘simplified’ (but not clarified), so that it is no longer understood, and is also unrecognizable as a reconstruction of the previous Rule Guidance (rewriting for simplification and clarification should not change the meaning and original purpose of an interpretation, it should do what it says, make the existing interpretation clear by expressing it more simply)

A player with the ball is permitted to move off with it in any direction except bodily into an opponent.   Originally this clause began Having received the ball the receiver must pass the ball away or must move away in any direction except bodily into an opponent. ”Away” meaning the ball had to be passed away immediately or the receiver had to immediately move, to put and keep the ball beyond the playing reach of opponents, (or evade any opponent who was chasing the ball, using stick-work and footwork skills, but without shielding the ball while doing so). Umpires were advised to watch for players who stand still and shield the ball when under pressure (so much for the impossibility of obstructing if stationary when in possession). Shielding a ball along a line and turning into an opponent were other listed actions to be watched for.

The fact that a player in possession of the ball cannot shield it with stick or body to obstruct an opponent, means that a receiver, having controlled the ball, should still move away at once to take the ball beyond the playing reach of any competing opponent.  But the current  ”is permitted to move off” does not convey anything of the sort (the ‘clarification’, in a two step process, going via may move away ‘muddied’ what had originally been a clear instruction must move away. Compare “is permitted to move off” with “must move away” Is the first (the current Explanation) a simplification and clarification of the second (the original Guidance) ? Do they mean the same thing?).

In 2009 there was a clarification of the first criteria given above  back into an opponent. The wording or (move) into a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play it. was added to give the current clause. This made it clear that it is a position between the ball and an opponent that must not be moved into (and that physical contact is therefore not necessary for there to be an obstruction offence). In other words (to repeat) a player cannot legally back or turn into a position between the ball and his or her opponent i.e. into the playing reach of an opponent – nor of course can a player in possession of the ball legally remain, while either moving or stationary and while shielding the ball, in a position between the ball and an opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and demonstrating an intent to play at the ball. (Demonstrating an intent to play at the ball is superior wording from a previous version of Guidance, which I have borrowed for this article to explain the Rule as it now is – this phrase ought to be restored to give clarity to the Rule as the phase ‘attempting to tackle’ is used as an excuse not to apply the Rule when a tackle attempt has illegally been made impossible).

Moving the ball from side to side or slow ‘weaving’ of the body while dribbling to maintain a shielding position is non compliant if the ball is still within the playing reach of an opponent, but cannot be played at, because it is shielded from that opponent with either stick or body. That is if the direct path to the ball for an opponent is obstructed by a ball holder and that prevents an opponent, who is trying to play at the ball from doing so, there is a breach of the Obstruction Rule. Not a lot of people know that, as Eric and Ernie (the comedians, Morcombe and Wise, famous in the UK) used to say.

The last clause:- A player who runs in front of or blocks an opponent to stop them legitimately playing or attempting to play the ball is obstructing (this is third party or shadow obstruction). This also applies if an attacker runs across or blocks defenders (including the goalkeeper or player with goalkeeping privileges) when a penalty corner is being taken.

is very close to the entire Obstruction Rule as it was written before the 1950’s. It unfortunately mixes and muddles third-party obstruction and obstruction by a tackler – which were all that were considered at the time – with the currently more prevalent obstruction by a player in possession of the ball, so it needs some clarification. Re-positioning of the word also helps, as does extending the scenarios in which obstructions occur. 

A player who runs in front of or blocks an opponent to stop them legitimately playing or attempting to play the ball is obstructing (this may also be third party or shadow obstruction). This applies if an attacker runs across or blocks defenders (including the goalkeeper or player with goalkeeping privileges) during a shootout, when a penalty corner is being being taken or when a tackle attempt is made.

But more work is needed on the above clause; third-party obstruction probably needs a separate clause, as does obstructive tackling.(i have written a separate article with suggestion for a rewrite of the Obstruction Rule

https://martinzigzag.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/field-hockey-rulebook-rewrite-rule-9-12-obstruction/

There are only two forms of body obstruction (1) running between an opponent and the ball to block the opponent’s path to the ball. This is often carried out as a forehand tackle, generally from behind and from the opponent’s left or as a ‘third-party’ blocking action (from any direction) to allow a team-mate to take possession of the ball, or (2) the more recent development, rarely seen prior to 1993; an ongoing ball shielding action, maintained to prevent an opponent attempting a legal tackle. Form (1) is generally well umpired (although there were some startling exceptions during the Rio Olympics). Form (2) is generally ignored, sometimes even when combined with physical contact. When there is physical contact during an obstructing action is is generally the defender who is penalised – even when entirely innocent (like the innocence of the stationary BRA defender in the picture commented about above).

It’s a very simple Rule – so simple that it is difficult to avoid repetition when explaining it being carried out by a player who is in possession of the ball.  If a player is compelled to ‘go around’ (or try to go around) an opponent in possession of the ball, or an otherwise path blocking opponent (third party), in order to attempt to play at the ball, that player is obstructed – if, but for the blocking/shielding action, he or she would have been able to play at the ball.

It has become a complicated Rule because there is an inexplicable reluctance to apply it and all sorts of ‘reasons’ are invented to avoid doing so e.g. “too difficult”, “players do not expect to be penalised” (circular reasoning), “everybody umpires this way” or “this is what I have been told to do” (both of which are a ‘cop out’ when a subjective judgement is called for), “not attempting to play at the ball” or “not in a position to play at the ball”, (when either or both actions – 1)  attempting a tackle, without making physical contact and 2) positioning to tackle – have illegally been made impossible by the prior actions of the obstructing player).

(In much the same way excuses are found for not applying the Rules concerning dangerous play, particularly a dangerously played ball).

Instead of there being an onus on players not to obstruct opponents, which is what an Obstruction Rule is (or should be) about, there is now, apparently, an obligation on an obstructed player to become unobstructed (to go around). That is analogous to the notion that a player defending the goal causes danger, by positioning, if the ball is raised at him or her by an opponent – gobbledygook reversing of responsibility in both Rules.

 

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