LONDON, England ● Move over wooden sticks and grass-green pitches, make way for a slew of changes in technology, rules and equipment, such as video referrals and a new pink-blue surface. This is hockey in the 21st century.
Usually perceived as a traditional sport that Britons carried to many colonial corners of the world, hockey has actually pushed its boundaries over past decades, constantly conceiving ways to become faster, safer and easier to watch.
London’s blue pitch, framed in bright pink – a first for big international tournaments – is just one example of the long way hockey has come since its first Olympic appearance in 1908.
After initial complaints about the pitch – any new turf can be bouncy and hard to play on – athletes quickly took the ground in their stride and a South African player said last week: “We were watching footage from a green pitch last night and that seemed strange already. It’s a nice pitch.”
New colours are the smallest of the changes for players who have long swapped out their wooden sticks for alternatives made mostly of carbon and aramid.
Hockey got rid of offside in the 1990s, introduced rolling substitutions at almost any time of a match in 2009 allowed players to take a free hit as a self-pass, so the player can dribble on. Still, coaches want more.
“We can’t be happy with what we’ve got just because we’re better than soccer. Well, soccer hasn’t done anything for 100 years. I’m always looking for improvements,” hockey veteran and Australian men’s coach Ric Charlesworth told Reuters.
He would like to see the sport turn more offensive but less dangerous. He has tried out nine-aside tournaments in Australia, wants a bigger goal and has ideas about new penalty corners.
In fact, while changes come at snail’s pace in larger sports such as soccer, it is not unknown for a rule to be adjusted if it turns out not to work in practice. The 1990s substitution rule was soon changed so to prevent teams from making swaps before a penalty corner.
Britain’s Calum Giles, for instance, had made an international career of flicking the set-pieces, and little else.
That hockey is innovative comes as no surprise. Soccer coaches have long copied its training methods, and have been able to win coaches from the less popular sport by offering better wages. It’s only a matter of time until they pick on this latest training method by German men’s coach Markus Weise.
When making his players practice penalty corner flicks, a tedious task down to thousands of repetitions, he flings them a quick arithmetic task – such as three times eight, which they have to solve before taking the ball.
He wants the flick to become so automatic that the pressure of being in a real match with defenders storming at them, won’t distract them. As the only coach to have taken both a women’s and a men’s team to Olympic gold, Weise should know.
Weise, though, would sometimes like to see a little less modernity. “Sometimes hockey is even too progressive. It would be good to keep a rule for a few years before changing it.”
In fact, the latest new introduction to the sport could take a few more years before it runs smoothly. Teams can now call one video referral per game for some offences in the last quarter of the pitch, which will only expire if they are overruled.
While players and coaches, including Weise and Charlesworth, welcome the rule in principle its Olympic debut in London has been all but smooth.
Two of the women’s teams that crashed out of the tournament on Monday, Germany and Australia, blamed the video referrals for their elimination.
Australia’s coach Adam Commens said an “unacceptable” error in using the system in their first pool match against New Zealand had cost his team dearly.
“We were quite unfortunate in the first match with video referral going against us – an umpire error,” Commens said.
“Then there was a penalty stroke disallowed” on which Australia could have used their referral if the team had not lost it unjustly earlier. Australia lost the first match to the Kiwis by 1-0 and only conceded one more goal throughout the tournament but still dropped out ahead of the semifinals.
Other peeves included the video judges not being able to come up with a conclusive answer despite seven HD cameras – which means the umpire’s original call stays – and language barriers – teams have to specify what exactly they want the judges to look at.
The international hockey federation FIH also said one problem was the use of inexperienced TV crews, rather than their own, which meant spectators saw different footage to the judges and were often left wondering why a decision was made when the judges saw a more precise angle.
Puzzled spectators may in fact be one of the biggest side effect of repeated changes to the hockey rule book.
“The rules have changed so much since I stopped playing ten years ago, I have no idea what the umpire is on about,” one former player was overheard after during an early game.