The Free Hit
Field Hockey may resemble other sports, with 11-person teams and a goalie on either side, but it has several one-of-a-kind rules. These unique plays, formations, penalties, and opportunities add a cerebral element to an amazingly fast, engaging sport. Free hits are an excellent example of this.
The “free hit” is awarded to a player when that person is fouled on the field of play by an opposing player. The ball must be hit by the player who has been fouled from the spot of the infraction. Should the foul occur inside the 16-yard shooting circle, the shot can be made from anywhere along that circle.
For newcomers to the sport, the infractions resulting in a free hit can be hard to follow. It’s essential to understand these rules, in part, because the game is so fast-moving, and the free hit must be taken without delay when the call is made. This article will look at the rules, plays, and formations that set field hockey apart.
To a spectator viewing a field hockey game for the first time, it’s a blur — players rush and retreat from the ball rapidly as it zips along the “pitch” or playing field. Suddenly, the umpire blows a whistle for no apparent reason, and the ball starts heading in the opposite direction. The disconcerted spectator wonders why the whistle was blown.
This phenomenon where a blown whistle results in such a rapid change of possession, and the resumption of the game in less time than it takes to read this sentence, is actually one of the real strengths of field hockey.
Few other sports have infractions that are called and settled so quickly without rancour. International field hockey rules state that each team’s captain is responsible for their teammates’ behaviour, and they are the only players who speak to umpires (source).
As a spectator, what you usually see following a whistle is a free hit, the most often awarded penalty in field hockey. Free hits are always taken near to the place where the foul occurred, and there are various types of free hits, depending on where and why they are awarded.
When a team is awarded a free hit, the opposition must stand back at least five yards. The ball will be stationary, and the player will either pass the ball to a teammate or start a self-pass. If it is not a self-pass, the ball must travel at least a yard before a teammate can play the ball.
During a free hit, the umpire allows the player taking the free hit the freedom to lift the ball into the air; however, they still have the responsibility to avoid hitting the ball in a way that would endanger opposing players (source).
As we will discuss shortly, these rules are not universal. Different age groups, nationalities, and league authorities have different views of these specific rules. However, in most places, a player can begin play by dribbling the ball forward after a foul rather than passing it to a teammate (source).
Free hits are awarded for any of the following reasons:
- An infraction has occurred.
- A foul has occurred in the striking circle on the defence resulting in a penalty corner.
- A foul has occurred in the striking circle on the defence resulting in a penalty stroke.
- A foul has occurred in the striking circle on the offence resulting in a 16-yard hit.
- The ball has gone over the sideline, resulting in a side-in.
- The ball has unintentionally gone over the end line, resulting in a long hit.
Let’s examine each of these scenarios and infractions in more detail.
Here are some of the minor infractions that an umpire, who is right on top of the action, might see and whistle. To a spectator watching from the sidelines, these fouls are not always evident as the ball can be hard to follow.
Advancing involves using any part of the body other than the stick to move the ball in any direction.
Using the rounded “backside” of the field hockey stick is called backsticks. It is an infraction that results in an immediate free hit. Players may only touch the ball using the flat side of the stick.
There are three kinds of obstruction. The first is using yourself or your stick to obstruct an opposing player from playing the ball. The second is shielding the ball from an opposing player with your body or your stick.
The last is third-party obstruction, where a third player comes between an opponent and the ball to allow their teammate to play the ball.
Again, if you, as a defender, commit one of these infractions, and you don’t stop the offensive player, the umpire will usually let play continue.
Undercutting means golfing the ball so that it flies up in the air. Unless a player is open and has a safe opportunity to loft the ball across or down the field, the ball should never rise above knee height during play.
Field hockey is distinct from other large team games, like ice hockey, rugby, lacrosse, and American football, in that it is intentionally non-contact. Sportsmanship is an inherent part of the game. That’s not to say that there is a lack of competitiveness. Sometimes tempers run high, and there are more severe fouls.
Any super aggressive play that risks harming an opposing player; trash talk, by the way, is a flagrant foul.
This is like a flagrant foul but is based more upon a physical assault, whether intentional or not, on an opposing player by physically pushing, blocking, tripping, or dangerously attacking the ball.
This only happens when the opposing team has the ball inside your 25-yard line, and you use your stick to hook, hold, slash, or strike the opponent’s stick. It’s an automatic penalty corner hit unless it happens within the scoring circle, which means the offended player gets a penalty stroke.
This infraction is called when, while playing the ball, you raise your stick above your shoulder in an intimidating or dangerous manner.
Additionally, at the discretion of the umpire, minor infractions may be deemed intentional or dangerous, and penalties can be accessed. There are three levels of penalty punishments that, as in soccer, are denoted by the card’s colour that the umpire holds up.
This is essentially a warning card. The offending player can remain in the game, which then proceeds.
The offending player sits out of the game — and the team is short-handed — for a set period of time of usually two minutes.
The offending player is ejected, and that player’s team continues short-handed.
Both offence and defence can make mistakes resulting in a free hit by the other team. If the offensive team hits the ball over the defensive end line without scoring or commits an infraction in the scoring circle, the defence is awarded a free hit known as a “16-yard hit“.
The ball is placed on the 16-yard line opposite the violation, and the defender can take a free hit. They may also push the ball to another defender who is better positioned to take the hit. All other players must stand at least five yards away from the ball until it is first touched.
If the ball goes out of bounds over a sideline, it is placed at the point where it went out of bounds, and a side-in hit is awarded. If a foul is committed against the team taking the side-in, then a free hit will be awarded.
If the ball unintentionally goes out of bounds past the back line off of a defensive player’s stick, the offensive team brings the ball back into play using a long corner or long hit.
The ball is placed on the sideline, five yards from the end line, and a long hit is taken. For more information on this, you may be interested in the article “What Is a Long Hit in Field Hockey?“
If a foul is committed against the team taking the long hit, they will be awarded a free hit. If a foul is committed against the defenders, a penalty corner will be awarded.
Far and away, the most interesting penalty infraction to watch, and the one that most often results in points being scored, is the “penalty corner” shot. This shot is awarded when the defending team commits a foul when the ball is within the striking circle or commits an intentional foul inside the 25-yard line (source).
The penalty corner is also called when the defence intentionally hits the ball out of its own end line. The striking circle is a semi-circle laid out 16 yards around a goal.
A penalty corner shot means six players on the defensive team go to the midfield stripe and stand on the opposite side. The goalie and remaining four position players stand either inside the goal behind the scoring line or outside the goal behind the end line.
All the offensive players take positions along the outside of the striking circle except for a lone player, the “inserter,” who inserts the ball from the corner, 10 yards from the goal. Once the ball is inserted, the offence can charge inside the circle, and the defenders come out from behind the end line.
When the offence inserts the ball, the remaining defensive players can come back across the midfield line and join the play. By the time the remaining defenders join the action, shots have often already been taken, which often results in points scored.
Field hockey has many aspects that set it apart from just about every other sport, like its terminology, equipment, and infractions. Since we have been talking about penalty corners, let’s begin with some of the regulations concerning that particular play.
The pitch is roughly the size of an American rules football field: 100 by 60.1 yards. The goal boxes at either end are 12 feet wide with a seven-foot-high horizontal crossbar connecting the standards. The penalty spot is a circle six inches in diameter seven yards from the goal (source).
Traditionally played on grass, field hockey has adapted well and become an even quicker game on new synthetic turf. At collegiate, national, and Olympic levels, field hockey is now an artificial turf game.
Only a goalie can wear full padding during play. However, prior to a penalty corner, the four defensive players who remain on their end of the pitch are allowed to don face shields and helmets due to the likelihood of a ball flying in their direction.
Scoring is an interesting proposition in field hockey as well. If the ball touches but does not cross the line into the goal box, it is not a score. Moreover, if a pass comes off an offensive player’s stick outside the shooting circle and crosses the goal, it isn’t a score.
Only shots taken by an attacker inside the 16-yard shooting circle can count as goals. Deflections off of defensive players are counted as goals. Once someone scores a goal, the scorer takes the ball from the opposing net and returns it to centerfield, and the game continues.
If an umpire awards a team with a penalty corner, they cannot substitute before the corner, but substitutions can happen freely during play. The incoming substitute goes to a specially designated area near midfield. Once a player comes off the field, the replacement can enter.
In every respect, field hockey is designed to be a fast game. Play doesn’t stop for infractions or substitutions. During penalties, play only pauses long enough for players to don their equipment and take up their positions. There are only two 90-second timeouts allowed — not per 20- or 30-minute half, but for the entire game.
One of the more intriguing aspects of field hockey is the “bully-off”. This is not a reference to a particularly overbearing individual, but rather to how the umpires occasionally put the ball into play.
Whenever there is an injury timeout or play is stopped for any reason that doesn’t involve a penalty, play is restarted through what, in ice hockey, is called a face-off or is similar to a jump ball in basketball.
One player from either team gathers at the ball. The opponents touch sticks, then each attempts to control the ball. Just make sure you hit the ball because, remember, hitting the opponent’s stick results in a foul and loss of possession.
Some of the rules differ slightly in some versions of the game. Often these rules are simply a nod to the age of the players. For instance, in youth league play, the time periods are shorter.
While field hockey is the epitome of a safe-to-play, sportsmanship-heavy game, it is the case that accidents can happen. Some leagues require players to wear mouthguards, and it’s becoming more common to require eye protection (source).
While it is relatively little known in North America, field hockey is one of the five most popular sports globally, both in terms of play and fan base. Thus, in an effort to codify the rules and playing standards around the world, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) created the Hockey Rules Board.
This board has no official power over field hockey leagues on the international stage, but it seeks to examine how the game is played in light of its history and the values exemplified by the sport. Then the board makes suggestions about rules to the FIH.
As mentioned above, the officials in a field hockey game are right on top of the action. The game is played at high speed and, because the potential for infractions is high, the umpires are involved throughout. They cannot just sit back and “let them play,” as referees are often encouraged to do in other sports.
For as much work as is required down on the pitch, there aren’t many officials to do it. There are two umpires, one for each side of the pitch, though they can cross the midfield line and assist one another. The only other officials involved are the timekeeper and scorekeeper.
Umpires have a tremendous amount of discretionary authority in the game. They have the ability to determine whether an infraction merely turns the ball over to the opposite team or if it results in a penalty that sidelines a player, leaving a team short-handed.
Just as sportsmanship is the underlying principle of field hockey, so, with refereeing, the attempt is to maintain fair play and, above all, ongoing play. In practice, officials are likely to explain their rulings, and then everyone moves on.
Emotional reactions are considered a real detriment, and, as such, celebrations and angry recriminations are kept to a minimum. Officially, only one person on the field may speak for the team. Since foul language is a flagrant foul, there are theoretically few verbal attacks on the umpires.
Field hockey is a dynamic, engaging game that summons the best from athletes not only athletically but also intellectually. Though simple in principle, the rules can be challenging to adhere to in actual play, causing multiple turnovers of the ball from offence to defence.
For the player and the spectator, field hockey is a game of maximum enjoyment that minimizes grandstanding, exemplifies sportsmanship, and requires continual exertion. This takes us back to the free hit, awarded to a player when the opposing team commits an infraction. It is about the only time a player can rest — for about five seconds.