At the recent Australian Hockey League (AHL) finals there were shootouts played out between competing teams. This is nothing abnormal except what was evident was the number of times the shooters would dribble the ball to directly in front of the goalkeeper and then turn 180° to shield the ball in such a close proximity to the goalkeeper that it would prevent the goalkeeper from playing fairly at the ball. Then with a lateral turning movement the shooter would position him or herself to get a shot away. The umpires would allow this blatant obstruction and award a goal if the ball went in. As an observer I was shocked by the allowance, feeling the frustration of the goalkeeper who was left helpless to defend the shootout by the deliberate shielding of the ball by the shooter. It is time to make the obstruction rule clearer.
Go Hockey News respects the hockey rules analyst and blogger Martin Conlon. Martin makes reference to what has been described above in his blog below. His thoughts about rewriting the obstruction rule is a great read and highly worthy of umpiring rules decision makers to take notice of.
The current 9.12
A suggested rewrite of a Rule of hockey. Obstruction
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.
Reason. The Rule is a fundamental element of the fair conduct of a non-contact game and is at present almost totally ignored due to deviant interpretation of Rule purpose and word meaning.
Comments and suggestions are invited.
The Obstruction Rule obliges a player in possession of the ball in contested situations to move the ball beyond the reach of opponents (by dribbling or passing) and to possess the ability, the stick-work skills, to retain the ball while keeping the ball open to opponents who are competing for it.
Hockey is not like soccer in this respect: soccer is a game which permits physical contact in challenges for the ball and also allows a player in possession of the ball to use the body to shield it from opponents and even hold them off, to prevent them from playing at the ball – hockey Rules permit neither action, physical contact nor ball-shielding. That naturally means that hockey is more difficult to learn to play properly than soccer is, but, once in possession of the ball, playing hockey without an Obstruction Rule is akin to playing tennis without an net – it requires little skill and the side/player in possession will almost always score. Keeping possession of the ball when there is no obstruction becomes for competent players almost as easy as it is in basketball, but hockey then becomes duller than basketball (which has generally unenforced physical contact Rules) because the time, shooting and zone limits imposed on basketball players, to prevent endless possession by one side, do not exist in hockey.
The suggested rewrite below is basically the Rule as it now exists, it adds only a clarification of “move into” and the concept of an ‘on-side’ tackler to the existing Rule – the latter something which has always been there but never stated – and restores the original “must move away” in place of the present “is permitted to move off”: a clear instruction replacing an empty statement, empty in that it is neither prohibitive or directive and therefore serves no purpose.
The suggestion has been made as explicit as I could make it, even at the cost of repetition. I have tried to avoid ambiguity. The suggested Rule is of about the same length as the original ‘new interpretation’, (the misnomer give to the guidance which contained the exception to the Rule allowed to a receiver of the ball which was introduced in 1993 – it was and is an exception to the Rule not a new interpretation of the criteria for an obstruction offence, which remained and remains unchanged) which was previously contained in the Rule Interpretations section in the back of pre-1995 rule-books.
Rule 9.12 Players must not shield the ball from an opponent with any part of the body or with the stick in a way that prevents or delays that opponent playing directly at the ball when that opponent would otherwise be immediately able to do so.
Shielding the ball to prevent an opponent playing at it is called obstruction and is an action contrary to this Rule of Hockey..
A player in possession of the ball illegally obstructs an opponent with his body or stick when:-
the opponent is level with or own goal-side of the ball (‘on-side’ of the ball)
the ball is within the playing reach of the opponent who intends to play it
the opponent is demonstrating an intent to play at the ball
the only reason the opponent cannot immediately play directly at the ball is because the direct path to it is obstructed by (any part of) the body or stick of a player in possession of the ball.
Obstructive ball shielding is therefore an offence that has to be forced by an opponent while demonstrating an intent to play at the ball or while trying to position to tackle, who in so doing shows that the direct path to the ball is obstructed; that is the opponent who is intent on playing at the ball is prevented from doing so only because the ball is shielded by the body or stick of the player in possession of it.
An obstructive offence may be forced by an opponent immediately that opponent approaches to within playing reach of the ball and demonstrates an intent to play at it.
A player in possession of the ball
who is :-
(a) faced with an ‘on-side’ opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and who is attempting to play at the ball, may not move (turn) with or on the ball to position the body and/or the stick between the ball and that opponent with the effect of blocking that opponent’s direct path to the ball and by this means or by moving the ball to the same effect, prevent or delay a legal attempt by an opponent to play at the ball. Moving to maintain a ball shielding position, for example ‘shunting’ sideways to continue shielding the ball from an opponent is not legitimate “moving off” or “moving away”.
A player in possession of the ball who is:-
(b) beyond the playing reach of a closing opponent who turns on or with the ball to position the body between that opponent and the ball or moves the ball to the same effect IS NOT allowed the time and space leeway, after the opponent has closed to within playing distance of the ball, that is exceptionally, given to a player in the act of receiving and controlling the ball. The ball must be kept beyond the playing reach of a closing opponent OR before the opponent is obstructed in his or her attempt to play at the ball (has come within playing reach of the ball and tried to play it) the player in possession of the ball must again turn on or with the ball to face opponents or position the ball, so that it is no longer shielded.
A stationary or slow moving ball-holder who obliges an opponent who is intent on playing at the ball to ‘go around’ a ball-shielding position to attempt to play at the ball, when that opponent would otherwise be able to play at the ball directly, is obstructing that opponent.(This is almost the opposite of the ‘onus’ on the tackler to position to tackle by going around a ball shielding opponent, which was contained in the original (1993) Rule Interpretation – the onus on a ball holder not to obstruct was in that interpretation ignored)
Within the criteria given above, an Obstruction Offence occurs when a player in possession of the ball, whether moving or stationary, positions the body in relation to the ball or the ball in relation to the body, so that the execution of a legal attempt to play at the ball by an ‘onside’ opponent, who would otherwise be able to immediately play directly at the ball, is not possible without that opponent having to move around the body or stick of the player in possession of the ball in order to play at it.
A player in possession of the ball :-
must not while shielding the ball with any part of the body including the legs, move into the playing reach of an opponent or move bodily into an opponent, causing contact, or by moving towards an opponent while shielding the ball i.e. by leading the ball with the body, oblige an opponent to give way to avoid body contact (Rule 9.3).
may not interpose his body as an obstruction to an opponent. A change of direction by a half-turn of the body with this result may amount to obstruction. It should be noted, however, that even a complete turn does not constitute a breach unless an opponent has thereby been obstructed in an attempt to play the ball.
A tackle may not be attempted from a position where physical contact will result (Rule 9.13), but obstruction may be demonstrated; it is in fact a requirement that obstruction is demonstrated for an obstruction offence to occur i.e. to demonstrate that a legal attempt to play at the ball is being prevented by an opponent’s ball shielding.
A player who is within playing distance of the ball and intends to make a tackle, but who is not in a position of balance from which a tackle attempt may be made, is for example, facing or moving or reaching in the wrong direction to play at the ball with a reasonable expectation of making contact with it with the stick, cannot be obstructed except as already noted, when evasive movement is forced to avoid physical contact being caused by an opponent in possession of the ball who is leading the ball with the leg or body and thus shielding the ball. When a ball holder moves into an opponent in either of the ways described in this clause the opponent who is being moved into is no longer obliged to demonstrate that an attempt is being made to play at the ball because such moving into will generally prevent a tackler (who may be forced to retreat to avoid contact) from attempting to execute a legal tackle.
The ‘Receiving’ Exception to the Rule.
Exceptionally, a player who is in the act of receiving and controlling the ball is during this time exempted from the possibility of a ball shielding offence.
A receiving player is permitted to receive the ball while facing in any direction and while either in a stationary position or while moving. Such a receiving player will not be obstructing any opponent who is within playing distance of the ball and attempting to play at it, even if shielding the ball from that opponent while receiving it. The receiving player, however, having received the ball and controlled it, must in these circumstances then immediately either:-
- a) pass the ball away or
- b) move awayfrom opponents with the ball to put and keep it beyond their playing reach and/or turn on or with the ball to face opponents, so that the ball is no longer shielded from them.
It will be necessary for a receiving player who elects to turn on or over the ball, after the ball is in control or as the ball is controlled, to:-
- a) make such a turn before an opponent is within playing reach of the ball or after having first taken the ball beyond the playing reach of the opponent or
- b) create space for a turn having duped the opponent into moving or reaching in the wrong direction, before there has been any obstruction.
Once an opponent is within playing reach of the ball the only options then available to the ball holder will be:-
- a) to either turn on the ball while moving the ball away from the reach of the opponent (which may be achieved with appropriate foot-work and stick-work ) or
- b) to move away with the ball to put and keep the it beyond the opponent’s reach, and then to turn on or with the ball – and/or to pass the ball away.
Once the ball has been received and controlled the receiving player may not, in a way that shields the ball from opponents who are within playing distance of the ball and demonstrating an intent to play it, dwell on the ball in a stationary position or while so positioned move the ball to shield it with the stick or body and thereby prevent a legal attempt to play at it.
After having received and controlled the ball while facing towards his or her own defence, making feints over the ball while stationary or slow moving or ‘dribbling’, which comprises of ‘weaving’ from side to side without taking the ball beyond the playing reach of the opponent and while maintaining a ball shielding position (thus preventing an opponent from immediately playing at the ball or from positioning to do so), will be considered an obstruction offence.
The receiving exception to the Obstruction Rule facilitates the receiving and controlling of the ball and continuation of play without the receiver who is facing towards his or her own baseline immediately committing an obstruction offence when closely marked by an opponent who is intent on playing at the ball – nothing more.
The ‘Manufactured’ Exception to the Rule.
A player in possession of the ball who plays it to the far side of an opponent (who is, for example, attempting to channel the ball holder or block the ball with the stick or execute a tackle) and then runs into that opponent claiming to be obstructed, has not been obstructed if there has been no movement with the intent to obstruct by the defending player. If there is physical contact the player who was in possession of the ball is in these circumstances the one more likely to have committed an offence. (This was a part of the previously deleted ‘Manufacturing’ Rule which should be restored).
A player who is not in possession of the ball who moves in front of or blocks the path of an opponent to stop that opponent legitimately playing or attempting to play the ball is obstructing. This form of obstruction is known as third-party obstruction because the obstructing player often carries out this action so that a team-mate (the second party) has more time and/or space to reach and/or play the ball. It can also be regarded as an impeding offence or according to the circumstances as a physical contact offence.
It is not necessary for the obstructed player to be within playing reach of the ball at the time a third-party offence is committed, it is only necessary that but for the offence, the obstructed player would have been able to intercept the ball or would have been in a position to challenge a team-mate of the obstructing player for the ball and was denied that opportunity. This form of obstruction is often carefully planned to create passing space in mid-field and is often deliberately carried out during penalty corners to a) give the stopper and shooting player more time to set up and make a shot and b) to block line of sight to the ball to defenders. It is in the latter case often a very dangerous action.
For there to be a third party obstruction It is generally necessary for the obstructing player to move to block the path to the ball of the obstructed player and third party obstruction cannot otherwise occur, but exceptionally, a player in possession of the ball may deliberately use a stationary team-mate as a shield by dribbling the ball very close to him or her so as to impose a compliant team-mate between the ball and an opponent who is intent on tackling for the ball – leaving the tackler, with the choice of going around or stopping or barging into the stationary third player i.e. in an obstructed position, unable to challenge the ball holder for possession of the ball.
The same principle applies to stick obstruction as applies to obstruction with the body. Positioning the stick between the stick of an opponent and the ball is obstruction if that action prevents the opponent playing the ball. It makes no difference if the stick of the player in possession of the ball is in contact with the ball or not. If, for example, the stick is positioned Indian dribble style with the stick-head over the top front of the ball in contact with and covering it, or the stick is used away from the ball to fend off the stick of a tackler as the tackler’s stick is moved towards the ball. Both these kinds of action are obstructive, if direct playing of the ball by an opponent, who is within playing distance of the ball and is attempting to play at it, is thereby prevented.
It might be asked “what is the point of a rewrite” if this:-
9.12 Players must not obstruct an opponent who is attempting to play the ball.
Players obstruct if they :
– back into an opponent
and these two complimentary statements:-
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 pretty good encapsulation of the Obstruction Rule) are already in place?
The answer is that what is written may seen perfectly clear but it is possible, as may be seen in most hockey matches, to either ignore it or interpret it in very different ways, so emphasis on purpose and intent and clarification of wording are required. (What for example, is the difference, and they have to be different to justify the inclusion of both in separate clauses, between back into an opponent and move bodily into an opponent ?).
A second answer is that “for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good people do nothing“. Calling deviant interpretation evil may seem overly dramatic, but I don’t want to see dribbling with the ball in hockey carried out in the same style as it is in basketball – backing into opponents to achieve a scoring position or to a ‘win’ a penalty for a ‘manufactured’ contact foul, but we are already well along that road and unless action is taken to remedy that, these practices will get much worse (although it is difficult to see how some of them could get any worse than they are now). I am serious when I say that the game has been destroyed; it was not intended that opponents should be ‘eluded’ by shielding and backing in and that sort of play is not attractive or spectacular – i.e pleasant to watch.
The video clips below, two of hundreds of possible examples available, also illustrates why the Obstruction Rule needs to be written more explicitly than it is at present. The player in possession of the ball, who clearly obstructs his opponents several times, was not penalised for these offences in an international level match. The mistaken assumption Cris Maloney et al make (see article https://martinzigzag.wordpress.com/2018/02/10/a-peculiar-interpretation) is to really believe or be prepared to accept, that if FIH Umpires are not penalising such obstructions then not to do so MUST be correct.
The ‘poster boy’ for the latest interpretation of obstruction (where there is apparently no such thing as obstruction even when there is physical contact caused by the attacker) is the shootout. The strength of this meme was illustrated when, in the BEL v ESP match during the 2018 WWC Michelle Joubert did penalise a shooter for backing in during a shootout – there was uproar – despite Joubert being perfectly correct.
Martin Conlon. A former player (Blackheath HC, Slough HC, Hounslow HC, Surbiton HC, Maidenhead HC, and Lusitanians) former umpire (Surrey Umpires Association), former hockey coach (Cuba to Junior World Cup and Pan American Games), retired but still alive and kicking.