UMPIRES RULE: FAQs about hockey rules development.

Hockey players and spectators are often bewildered about the rules of hockey. What makes them keep evolving? What process is used to introduce a new rule? Umpiring bloggist Martin Conlon identifies and reviews some  frequently asked questions about the development of hockey rules.

Rules of Hockey. FAQ with answers, from the Rules Section of the FIH website. Asked Questions about the Rules of Hockey.

(The provided Questions and Answers from the FIH web-site are written in yellow blue  text)

  1. What is the role of the Rules Committee?

(for clarity and reference I have here lettered the various roles listed in the provided answer)

The Rules Committee produces rules for indoor and outdoor hockey by:

  1. a) specifying the current rules and working to ensure they are interpreted and applied consistently and fairly at all levels;
  2. b) providing advice to umpires and other technical officials about rules;
  3. c) developing the rules while retaining the game’s characteristics;
  4. d) aiming to make the game even safer and easier to understand;
  5. e) conducting trials and promoting rules changes;
  6. f) contributing to the development of the game including the development of equipment and new formats.

Which of the above roles does the Rules Committee fulfil? I would suggest only b) e) and f) certainly little of a) and not all of c) and they are way ‘off target’ with d).

There is an impression, even among some umpires, that umpires decide what the Rules or what the interpretations of the Rules are and that they can change either at will: this is a false impression.

Here is the relevant part of an FIH Executive Board Circular, issued to all National Associations in 2001, which, as can be seen from the answer given to Question 18 below, is still extant

In November 2001 the FIH Executive Board agreed with a recommendation from the Hockey Rules Board that there should only be one set of interpretations and that the Hockey Rules Board had sole responsibility for producing these. No other FIH body or official could vary the rules or their interpretations (my underline and bold) 

(The HRB, the Hockey Rules Board, was renamed the Rules Committee in 2011. The term HRB was overlooked in some places when this Rules FAQ information was last edited – not changed to Rules Committee – see for example question 4 – other information is also out of date because of more recent Rule changes.)

It is important when using the term ‘interpretation’ to distinguish between the interpretation of the text provided within the Rule Book – which is intended to give an explanation of the application of the Rule – and interpretation of the actions of players during a hockey match; the latter can of course be carried out by an umpire present on the pitch at the time but not by someone who does not see the action.

The above recommendation from the HRB to the Executive Board – which the Executive Board ratified in its Circular – was obviously made in response to the making of unauthorized ‘interpretations’ of the provided wording and the invention (or ignoring) of ‘Rules’ by people outside the HRB or even by individuals within it..

The Rules Advisory Panel, which had been formed in 1993 to oversee Rules trials, was officially disbanded in 2001.

Because of its importance I have placed the question numbered eighteen (of twenty) here.

  1. What is the procedure for developing a rules change?

The message in the above Circular and the related answer given to this question – and what flows from this information – should be known by all Tournament Directors, Umpire Managers, Umpire Coaches and Umpires of all levels.

Ideas come from a variety of sources including players , coaches , umpires , the media, officials at events , and so on; ideas either come through National Associations and other groups or are referred directly to the HRB ideas are analysed and discussed in the Rules Committee usually over a period of time in two or three meetings ; if the change is a relatively minor one, the Rules Committee may then be able to recommend a change; if a significant change is involved, further investigations will take place and a working group is set up to look at all the implications; significant changes are progressed through trials and mandatory experiments having received comment and advice, the Rules Committee will come to a conclusion; it then prepares a report about proposed rules changes for the Executive Board of the FIH (which will also have sanctioned related trials and mandatory experiments if they have taken place); the Executive Board will either agree the change or refer it back for further consideration by the Rules Committee; the Executive Board cannot directly amend a proposed change; it does not happen often, but a change might then have immediate effect;

otherwise the change is incorporated in the next Rules Book.

The answer, given above, states who (which FIH body) has sole authority to make any Rule change. Who is as important, perhaps more so, than how. When there is control of the who then the how is easy to determine.

  1. Why is the Rules Committee always changing the rules?

The Rules Committee are not always changing the Rules. However, unofficial but ‘accepted’ Rule change (accepted by those who invent it and ‘cascade’ it as ‘interpretation’.) can arise from what is given in the Umpire Mangers Briefing for Umpires in FIH Tournaments (the UMB) which is produced by the Umpiring Committee. It also arises from:- individual FIH Officials, Tournament Directors, Umpire Managers, Umpire Coaches and from Umpires themselves, and this gives other participants and spectators the impression of constant – monthly or even weekly – Rule flux, with the Rule book being seen as ‘out of date’. It is impossible for the Rules of Hockey to be “out of date” in matters of Rule or Interpretation.

The ‘interpretation’ of the explanation of application of the Self-pass (for example), underwent several revisions in the course of the first two seasons after its adoption into full Rule – without a single word concerning it being changed in the published Rules of Hockey. There have in fact been no changes made to the wording of the FIH published Rule or Explanation on the Self-pass in the Rule Book since it was adopted into Rule (and plenty of opportunity to make any desired change as the facility of the Direct Lift from a Free-ball was added to the ‘Free Hit’ Rule a few years after the Self-pass was) any additional material (such as that contained in the UMB) cannot be treated as if Rule or instruction about Rule application from the Rules Committee – the only body with authority to draft Rule and Interpretation – see contrary practice in this document NPUA Guidance. The purpose of trial or Mandatory Experiment is to resolve any difficulties before the Rule is permanently written into the Rule Book. It is not the case that the Rule is published and it will then be up to National Umpiring Associations, Umpire Managers or Umpires to interpret it as they see fit – although they are of course at liberty to make suggestions for improvement to the Rules Committee.

There are three main reasons for changes. To keep up with technical advances such as synthetic playing surfaces, player fitness, stick manufacturing and coaching tactics safety issues. For example, thirty years ago goalkeepers did not wear helmets. To insure that hockey stays a popular sport throughout the world and make it an attractive game to watch and to play.

There are actually at least five reasons for changes made to the Rules by the FIH Rules Committee. Included among them are a) correcting or amending previously made changes (i.e. mistakes), usually ones that have been recently made and where there was no trial or Mandatory Experiment. e.g. the Own Goal Rule and b) ‘catching up’ with ‘umpiring practice’. For example  the deletion of Forcing as an offence.

There are in addition changes made to the Rules which are accepted into ‘practice’ by umpires but which are not part of the Rules of Hockey i.e. are not submitted to the FIH Executive Board by the Rules Committee and given the approval of the Executive. For example:-

1) obliging defenders to allow a player making an early self-pass (one made before opponents have been given the opportunity to retreat) to move the ball 5m without attempting to influence the play of the pass-taker – an addition given in the UMB..

2) permitting a player in controlled possession of the ball to shield it to prevent a tackle attempt on the basis that a tackler should ‘go around’

3) declaring that no ‘on target’ shot at the goal can be considered dangerous play.

4) declaring it to be an offence to run from within the goal to close down on an opponent, who is receiving or in possession of the ball, during a penalty corner.

There is also the effect of perverse (and lazy or stubborn – Rule change involves learning and the changing of established habit) refusal to accept deletions made by the Rules Committee. For example:-

1) the continued application of “gained benefit” (often expressed as “disadvantaged opponents”) to the ball-body contact Rule – deleted after 2006.

2) the placing of an ‘onus’ on an obstructed tackler to become unobstructed i.e. “go around” an obstructing opponent to re-position to make a tackle attempt – deleted after 2003.

  1. What are rules “trials”?

When the Rules Committee considers a substantial rules change it will first encourage National Associations to try the proposed change voluntarily in various matches and report the results . The Rules Committee may then introduce a mandatory experiment.

  1. What is a “mandatory experiment”?

A mandatory experiment is a proposed change that the Hockey Rules Board has included in the Rules of Hockey. Everyone must play by this rule until the HRB decides whether or not to make it an official rule.

Can you recall the last Mandatory Experiment? Have there been any changes made to the Rules of Hockey, unrelated to that Experiment, since it took place? Did you question how or why that may have occurred?

  1. How can I forward ideas for a change of the rules?

Send your suggestion to your National Association and ask them to consider it and forward it to the Rules Committee. In this way the formal support of a National Association is associated with the proposal and they will also know how best to put the matter to the Rules Committee.

This is usually a way of ensuring that Rule ideas will not be forwarded to the FIH Rules Committee because :-

  1. a) The suggestion has been made many times previously and the Rules Committee are very well aware of it.
  2. b) The idea is thought to be unworkable or impractical, for example too expensive e.g. altering the size of the hockey goal, or requires too many additional officials e.g. having four flag officials and an umpire or introducing the periodic substitution of umpires during a match (e.g. at the proposed quarter breaks).
  3. c) The idea goes against ‘tradition’, it is thought it will change unique characteristics of the game e.g. abolishing the offence of ‘back-sticks’ or replacing the penalty corner with a power-play conducted in the 23m area.
  4. d) Who do you think you are?  If an idea is worth trying at all, acurrently practicing(and highly respected) FIH Official or FIH Umpire or International team coach or International player would already have thought of it.

The answer given has merit however, because going via National Associations ‘spreads the load’ and a similar or even identical suggestions may have been put to the Rules Committee previously – in which case a National Association should be able to (and ought) explain why the suggestion has not been adopted previously.  It is probably best not to put forward suggestions for Rule change unless you are familiar with the current Rules of Hockey and also have a reasonable grasp of past Rules – and why any Rules in the area you want changed, were previously amended or deleted.

(But if you don’t have access to previous Rules Books there is no means of finding out precisely what the Rules were in any particular year. Of course what the written Rule was and how a Rule was applied at any particular time might have little resemblance to each other – which is much the situation we have now)

  1. What is the hockey background of the Rules Committee members?

All have played and/or umpired hockey. Most of them are still very active in the game ranging from coaching at the top level to playing at veteran’s level! Members come from all over the world.

  1. What is the use of a “briefing” for players and umpires?

International umpires may be briefed at major events by the Umpires Manager and / or the Tournament Director. This is to ensure consistency. Similar advice is included in the Rules Book to reach a wider audience.

The goal is to have a common understanding of rules and their application.

The FIH Rules Committee is so far wide of this goal that they might just as well have been aiming in the opposite direction. The UMB often contains ‘Rule interpretation’ which cannot be ‘an interpretation’ of Rule text within the Rule Book because there is no text in the Rule Book that could possibly be interpreted in the way suggested .The impression is given that the Rules and especially the interpretations of Rule originate in ‘briefings’ and the FIH published Rules of Hockey are only there or to be used for the purpose of “reaching a wider audience”.


There are examples of direct conflict between the content of the UMB and the Rules of Hockey and also of the addition or extension of Explanation clauses in the UMB which are not contained in the Rule Book. The UMB is produced via the Umpiring Committee not the Rules Committee (by or from “The FIH” has often been used to ‘cover’ an absence of authority – see Notes and highlighted text on the Self pass under Clarification in this England  NPUA GuidanceThe content of the UMB is not Rule or interpretation, but advice provided to FIH Umpires officiating in Tournaments (and unnecessary because Tournament Regulations contain all Rule Variation applicable in International hockey). Where the UMB conflicts with or exceeds Rule or Explanation in all other hockey (what is actually given in the Rule Book) then Rule must be given preference and any conflicting advice ignored. Additional material in the UMB which is unsupported within the Rule Book should be treated as advice or encouragement – not Rule or instruction.

  1. How many rules changes can be implemented at the same time?

Significant changes will only be implemented after extensive trial and a period of mandatory experiment. It works best when only one change is implemented at a time. Other amendments of a minor nature are sometimes implemented at the same time.

That statement leads me to wonder what an insignificant change might be. Is reducing the playing time from 70 minutes to 60minutes insignificant? Was the deletion of Forcing as an offence or the deletion of the ‘gains benefit’ exception clause (Rule 9.11) or the changing of the wording of the explanation of application of the Obstruction Rule, insignificant – there were no trials or Mandatory Experiments  prior to these changes or to several others – some of them were not even announced in the Preface of the Rule Book in which they first appeared (the usual practice to bring any change made to the notice of participants).

  1. Have any suggestions for a rules change ever been rejected?

Considered in the past but not leading to permanent changes (although possibly to be re-considered some time in the future):

(lettered for clarity)

  1. a) reducing the number of players on the pitch at any one time – for example from the current eleven to nine;
  2. b) awarding a ‘long corner’ if the ball is intentionally played over the back-line by a defender – that is , instead of a penalty corner;
  3. c) substitution at a Penalty Corner was initially permitted but was subsequently withdrawn from the rules .

I like the addition of (although possibly to be re-considered some time in the future):because, before that phrase was added, one of my suggestions for Rule change lay among the examples of rejected ideas, as if buried in a graveyard, for several years before it was adopted. Another has been removed from the list – so there is still hope for that. My experience is that it takes about twelve years to get an idea accepted, but some take much longer than that. I have been writing about the need for better objective criterion to define a dangerously played ball since 1998, but there now seems to be much less emphasis on the safety of players than there once was – the ‘marketing’ response is that hockey is not a dangerous sport.

  1. Where can I find a translation of the Rules Book?

If you are seeking the Rules in a different language, it’s best to contact your National Association.

Unless of course you are seeking a translation into Standard English. The Rules of Hockey would be far easier to translate to other languages if the interpretation of English – as the English language is currently understood by English writers – could be agreed upon, and simple existing Rules of Interpretation (from the legal system, which has had them in place for hundreds of years) adhered to. For example, not using a word – such as ‘legitimate’ – in two or more contexts where it should or must have a different meaning in each.

It is however unfortunate that umpires become involved in the interpretation of the language used in the Rules of Hockey at all. This involvement would be unnecessary if the Rules were drafted in language without conflict or ambiguity and with adequate explanation. Umpires should be able to focus entirely on the interpretation of the actions and intentions of players in relation to the Rules of Hockey.  They should have no need to get involved in debate about the meaning of words used in the Rule Book (or worse, invent word or phrase meanings which are not even supported by common sense, to attempt to justify their own umpiring habits, for example bizarre interpretation of the meaning of ‘voluntarily’ or ‘benefit’ or ‘an advantage’ ).

Umpires on Internet hockey forums when asked about the Rules of Hockey often use the acronym YHTBT “You Have To Be There”. That makes no sense : one does not “have to be there” to know what the Rule is. But one does need to be present to know if an action that requires a subjective judgement to be made about its legality or validity, is Rule compliant or a breach of Rule – and whether advantage can or should be allowed.

That umpires should become involved in debate about the meaning of words such as “legitimate” or “voluntarily” or the context in which they are used, is absurd. The Rules of Hockey should be written so that a twelve year old child of average intelligence will have no difficulty understanding exactly what the Rules Committee require of her or him when he or she is playing in a hockey match. What is just as bad as debate about word meaning, if not worse, is altering on an ad hoc basis, the interpretation of Rule according to the level of match play e.g. declaring actions that obviously endanger others (put them at risk of injury) to be ‘not dangerous’ at National League level or International level because of the assumed skill of the participants. When “almost nothing” is going to be considered dangerous, umpires stop thinking about the possibility of dangerous play and looking for it – that in itself is dangerous.

About  Martin Conlon

For new readers Martin Conlon is the author of the blog website, ‘The Rules of Hockey – Observations and proposals about the rules of field hockey’.  Martin 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.  

 Martin Conlon

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