Hockey means a lot to me.
It represents memories, personal and professional development, achievement and overcoming all sorts of challenges.
Hockey and sports in general, offer the opportunity of dreaming. Personally, some of those dreams did come true:
To meet some of my idols growing up, to live and work in different countries, to coach and be part of teams with smart and talented people, to create original products in collaboration with brands I’ve admired during childhood and probably, above all, the fact we have created a platform that inspires thousands of people around the world.
However, for me, Hockey also provides an exciting undefinable concept that thrills me and excites me. It’s like an ongoing dream!
It’s difficult to explain this concept and I don’t feel the need to bring much rationale or understanding to it. Seems to be a mixture between a permanent passionate engagement about something. Based on memories, curiosity, intuition and optimistic feelings. The drive that keeps you excited while watching a game of simply to grab the stick and the ball and play around on a pitch.
Let’s keep it less abstract for a while, my personal experience and perception about hockey is the most irrelevant part of this piece.
The thing is, when something is so dear and important as hockey is in my life, when you are so deeply involved trying to improve the sport, certain decisions that aren’t providing any perspective of a balanced future, seem extremely wrong and damaging. One in particular, gets me really apprehensive: The (renewed) impulse of Hockey5s.
Last week, the FIH revealed (just some days after announcing World Cup 2023 being hosted in India for the 3rd time in the last four editions) that in the same year of 2023, the first official Hockey5s World Cup will be organised.
Firstly, we have been told that in order to keep our Olympic sport status and relevance within important sports governing bodies, it is fundamental to have a shorter format, to be introduced at the Youth Olympic Games.
We have been living in fear of losing our ‘Olympic status’ since at least 2012. Following London 2012, reports have shown that hockey was in a fragile position regarding worldwide popularity, TV coverage , internet presence and exposure.
Hockey5s has been part of the YOG sports panel since 2014 edition in Nanjing and Buenos Aires 2018.
We could, of course, discuss what would be the impact of hockey leaving the Olympic platform but that will be another topic… I am not equipped with enough information to formulate further thoughts about this possibility.
Assuming we need to maintain the Olympic Status and a shorter format.
That format should be supplementary and complementary, therefore not conflictive with the main form: ‘Hockey 11s’.
Feel free to re-read a previous article where I explained my belief that a shorter format should be based upon existing Indoor Hockey or an slightly adapted version that would allow that form of the game to be played outdoors. You can read my article here.
In this article I will endeavour to explain why Hockey5s is, in my opinion, a very serious mistake and how it could irreversibly damage Hockey as we know it.
We might want to bear in mind that a considerable number of National Associations struggle to hold proper domestic hockey11s competitions and when you offer them the possibility to compete on official international competitions of 5v5, you are indirectly telling them to lower or shift their efforts on what should be everyone’s main priority: to grow hockey (11s).
Fundamentally because of the previous, I insist that this impulse of Hockey5s might have a very negative impact on hockey…
There are certainly several obstacles to address in order to support smaller NA’s and global growth of the game yet to invest on a institutionalisation of ‘deformed’ version of the game is not the adequate solution and can prove dangerous.
Our proudest tradition: Innovation
Regardless of all debates we can have about the sport, preferences, tastes, political or financial influences.Regardless of the way, we as individuals, perceive and experience the game, there is something that should be sacred and above any layer of discussion: the integrity and original logic of the game.
I believe we need to be extremely careful about the way that we, mere (transitory) curators of the game, preserve the original logic game. Hockey needs to remain hockey. That should a primary condition and common sense should rule the day when discussing any change.
I can only think about 2 other premises as important as the above:
– Fair Play
– Player safety
Surely, we need to keep an open mind to evolve the game, matching the enhanced qualities of the modern athlete (faster and stronger than ever) and technology .
A couple of basic positive examples on player safety, where hockey evolved, preserving identity and original game logic:
– Goalkeeper gear
– Shooting on goal regulation
– self-pass rule
– Artificial turfs
On this area, hockey is really a leading sport. We are capable to change without affecting the game in a disruptive way.
A positive sign is that hockey, while introducing new rules and modern equipment is still played widely by veteran players all over the world. Even with all recent changes, the game remains more or less the same.
Here’s a fun fact: England, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Netherlands didn’t participate in any kind of Hockey5s European tournament.
I wonder what kind of consultations were held regarding the conceptualisation or simple feedback regarding hockey5s?
Considering not only that the top 5 European national associations don’t see hockey5s as a tool for developing their young players but also the fact that so many considered coaches and experts of the game are publicly (or privately) against Hockey5s?
Don’t compare yourself with others, compare yourself with how you were yesterday!
Comparing hockey5s with the examples of beach volleyball, rugby 7s or cricket T20 as they are also smaller formats?
People commonly tend to compare hockey with Cricket or Rugby (all sports historically expanded in British Colonial British territories) and those are examples of sports that found their way without the support of the IOC- although Rugby now has an Olympic presence with Rugby7s.
Beach volleyball for instance, uses the same rules as its main format but with a reduced number of players on a smaller field. The success of that format is based on the fact that on any beach with a net and a ball you can easily play.
This is of course very different in all senses to the hockey(5s) logistics.
According to Wikipedia, Rugby sevens was initially conceived in 1883 by Ned Haig and David Sanderson, who were butchers from Melrose, Scotland as a fund-raising event for their local club, Melrose RFC. The first-ever sevens match was played at The Greenyards, the Melrose ground, where it was well received.
So apparently it wasn’t just some cool and modern invention, rather a very old creation and variation of the game.
About cricket… well, take a look at this Netflix show Patriot Act, where this particular episode talks about cricket.
Currently, with a lot of management and corruption issues. Not a great example to follow, if you ask me…
There is a very interesting article from Ashley Morrison on his blog ‘Not the Footy Show’ relating with this subject of other formats of main sports.
Back to hockey5s
Let’s start with Indoor5s failed trial.
A few years ago FIH tried Indoor5s, as the name suggests indoor hockey played with 5 players (1 GK + 4 field players) supposedly the idea was that by reducing one player there would be ‘more space’, therefore more individual and creative play.
Soon you realise that the concept of ‘game space’ is always related with 3 main axis: Field dimension, player and ball occupation.
So in a simple explanation, if you reduce one player, teams will still need to find collective structures to defend zonal and/or individually their field of play. As it turned out, teams opted for ultra defensive zonal structures which made the game even less spectacular than before.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to understand that a build-up with 4 players instead of 5 will create way less passing angles, numerical possibilities and penetration dynamics. I think a failed 2 year trial is fine and fair enough, but we should have learned something from the experiment…
To my surprise and that of everyone else who is paying some attention, at the YOG 2014 in Nanjing, an outdoor format with 5 players again… now with sideboards and backboards and the possibility of players bashing the ball from everywhere…
YOG 2018 in Buenos Aires, the same hockey5s.
FIH sources supportive of hockey5s, state that the stands were full and the participating delegations loved the competition.
Hockey matches are generally well attended on multidisciplinary sportive events, not only because hockey is an amazing sport, but usually it’s one of the sports that is normally not sold out and therefore easier to attend.
At the same Olympic Games if live attendance would be an important criteria of vitality and potential, we wouldn’t have been felt so under threat since 2012…
Regarding the level of satisfaction of the participating delegations, I perfectly understand that for countries that normally don’t have the opportunity to be in this kind of environment, this is a valuable opportunity, that by itself doesn’t make that the format is legitimate and healthy for the mother sport.
I mean, Netherlands Men was the indoor world champion team of indoor5s in 2015 and still, we all agree that format is not as good as hockey6s. I am sure if you ask the Dutch players opinion, they will say the same, regardless they have won a major competition within that format.
So because some like and take profit of that doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.
If only our recent international strategy was looking for decreasing the gap between top and developing countries.
On every video footage of hockey5s on YouTube there is at least 1 player hit with a smashed ball, now consider that so far, was mostly played by youngsters, now imagine full senior players, some of the most powerful athletes in the world smashing balls around…
Meanwhile, apparently the rules suffered a slight change and you can only hit the ball on goal from an attacking midfield area.
So now, you generally have 2 main tactical approaches to take.
You can either engage on a ‘pure’ 1v1 (which is definitely the safest option – still strange that we are looking into tactics in order to evaluate what is less dangerous for players…) or a low zonal defence (below the midfield?) considering the field dimensions and the fact there are only 4 field players, you couldn’t really execute a competent high zonal structure without giving-away a lot of space ‘inside’ and/or ‘behind’.
Now the problem with a lower zonal block within such a small field, completely surrounded by a responsive boarding, is that still considering the characteristics and size of a hockey ball, you would still concede a lot of space for ball penetration…
One of the enriching aspects of our game, from a coaching perspective, are the different nuances and dynamics between more individual marking styles and zonal or positional ones.
You might only score from the attacking midfield but this game format and tactical formations of the team will invite for permanent bashing from distance.
Now for me, as coach and educator, this format represents dangerous situations with a fear for the players health and safety, an utterly uninteresting tactical exercise and above all the complete opposite of what our international coaching manuals preach.
We are inviting players to run and smash instead of developing technical and tactical skills.
We either change the rules and conditions of this format or if we insist on the current idea, we need to have players geared up with some kind of ice hockey equipment – which brings us back to a previous point and surely will affect immensely the original logic and image of hockey.
Oh wait… I forgot we still have (6 a-side) Indoor hockey waiting to be properly supported, adapted if needed and embraced by the governing bodies…
A word to my good friend Mark Peart for supporting and challenging my hockey thoughts!