Field Hockey Positions
An amazingly fast game in which the ball can change ends of the 100-yard field in seconds, engaging 22 players in rapidly shifting locations, a frequently asked question is, which is the most difficult position?
While each position is challenging, that of the midfielder or halfback is likely the most difficult. Like those playing striker, the midfielder must be able to challenge the opposition goal and score. The midfielder must also be able to defend and, above all, the midfielder runs continually, requiring superb stamina.
Any assertion that one position is more challenging than another will likely cause disagreement among field hockey players and fans. An examination of the different roles and developing an understanding of this fantastic and underappreciated game is essential.
When it comes to the players, each team has ten field players and one goalie, who, in addition to wearing pads and a helmet, has a different coloured jersey, much like a soccer goalie. The field players are divided into three ranks: strikers (or forwards), midfielders (or halfbacks), and defenders (or fullbacks).
As the name suggests, strikers are the players responsible for attacking the opponents’ goal with the ball. They are the most likely to score and, as such, are typically chosen for their speed and aggressive abilities.
While there are many different formations, there are often four strikers: right, right inner, left inner and left positions. Strikers must be able to dribble, pass, anticipate where the action is going, and shoot the ball accurately and quickly.
It should be noted that all hockey sticks are “right-handed,” meaning that the flat side of the stick favours those shooting with the right hand lower on the stick, the natural position. When a striker must shoot from the left side, they must turn the stick backward so that the curved edge does not touch the ball.
For more information on this, be sure to read the article called “Can You Use Both Sides of a Field Hockey Stick?“
There are often three defenders at the other end of the field: right, sweeper, and left. Defenders must be adept at attacking the offensive players coming toward them. They must be able to challenge opponents from the front and the side without fouling them.
Defenders must be able to react to the movement of the action on the field while still being alert to the defensive formation of which they are a part. When there is a penalty shot on goal, defenders alone stay back with the goalie, so they have to be courageous.
In many formations, there are three midfielders: right, center, and left. Midfielders are expected to range rapidly over two-thirds of the pitch since they are responsible for helping strikers score and helping defenders prevent scores.
Midfielders must have endurance since they must change from being on the offence to the defence and back several times within a few seconds and ranging from the shooting circle 23 yards from their goal to the shooting circle 23 yards from the opponents’ goal.
The ideal midfielder must be able to dribble, pass, shoot, attack, and defend. In short, a midfielder has to be able to do everything the other position players must do, all the while repeatedly running up and down the pitch. For this reason, the midfielder is considered the most challenging position.
Those who assume field hockey is a simple game have never had a chance to examine the multiple formations players can take on the pitch — field hockey’s term for “field”. As with basketball or American football, in field hockey, there are a number of standard formations that are designated simply by numbers (source).
In other sports, formations primarily refer to either offensive or defensive positions. In American football, for instance, the Wildcat is an offensive set. In basketball, the Diamond-and-One is a defensive set. In field hockey, however, formations are both offensive and defensive, since possession changes so quickly.
For example, a commonly used formation is the “2-3-2-3”: two strikers, three midfielders, two halfbacks, and three defenders. In this and all formations, the 11th player is the goalie, who remains in goal throughout the play.
In the 2-3-2-3 set, if the team is on offence, the three defenders remain back on the side of midfield in case the other team gets control of the ball. The halfbacks or midfielders are just in front of the defenders but are also able to storm forward to assist with scoring opportunities.
The midfielders are not as close to the opposing goal as the strikers. Their responsibility is to advance the ball, pass to the strikers, rush forward to assist with a scoring attempt, or to attack the ball should the defence take over.
The instant the opposition gets control, the midfielders are responsible for attacking and trying to get it back, running forward or backward to get between opposition players and their own goal. Halfbacks have dropped back to level in front of the defenders.
So, on the run to score and on the run to defend, making sure to avoid making mistakes with their sticks, the midfielder is in the nerve-wracking position of being continually in motion and trying not to make a mistake that would cause a change of possession, or worse, a free shot on goal.
In America, girls are more likely to play field hockey, while boys are more likely to play Lacrosse than girls. In reality, apart from being played with sticks and trying to make goals in a similar manner, the two games are remarkably different.
Lacrosse emerged from a Native American game. Players have webbed wickets and can catch and run with the ball, make overhand passes, and physically block one another. Helmets and protective padding are necessary for all Lacrosse players.
By contrast, field hockey developed from an ancient old-world game that was apparently wide-spread through the Mediterranian region, Asia Minor and North Africa. Painted art and bas reliefs reveal that something very like field hockey was played in Greece 2500 years ago, and in Egypt 4000 years ago (source).
There is one final, very interesting distinction between field hockey and Lacrosse that has to do with popularity. Field hockey is in something of the same position as soccer was in America prior to the 21st century: a game that was quite popular everywhere in the world except the U.S.
According to some measures, field hockey has upwards of two billion fans, making it the fourth most-watched and played sport worldwide (source). While Lacrosse is growing in popularity, it is not close to being in the ten most popular sports.
The novice watching a field hockey game will not understand the many whistles by the referees, the multiple changes of possession, or those occasions when four players huddle in a goal box and rush out to face the entire opposing team.
These are practices that make perfect sense to a field hockey aficionado but require some explanation for others.
Going back to the unusual stick that each player has, a closer look will show that the curved end is flat on one side and rounded on the other, sort of like a golf putter that has one flat side and one tapered side. A player can only intentionally touch the ball with the flat side of the stick.
If two opposing players go after a loose ball and the referee suddenly whistles, several possible fouls may have taken place. One of the players may have touched the ball with the stick’s backside, thereby forfeiting possession of the ball to the other side.
Another possibility is that one of the players touched their stick to the opposing player’s stick. This also is a foul and results in losing possession. It might be that one of the players intentionally came between the ball and the other player with her or his body. Again, this is a foul, resulting in loss of possession.
These three fouls — using the wrong side of the stick, touching an opponent’s stick, and placing one’s body between the possessing player and the ball — are the most difficult for the midfielder to avoid. This is in no small measure because the midfielder is in full flight up and down the pitch.
There are some other common fouls that frequently happen during a game, usually merely resulting in the loss of possession of the ball. For instance, only one defender can “tackle” the offensive player with the ball, meaning make an attempt to take the ball away.
It should be noted that there are differing official bodies based on geographical locations, the age and gender of the players, and other factors. Because of this, rules vary in many respects. For instance, some youth leagues require players to wear mouth guards and protective lenses while others do not (source).
The suggestion that one position is more challenging to play than another is undoubtedly controversial. This is the sort of disagreement that could be expected when asking a similar question of any other sport. Those who have played the game will have the best insight, and there will be multiple answers.
The more significant controversy is why such an internationally popular game has such difficulty getting traction in the United States. We can only hope that, over time, field hockey will generate the interest it deserves in North America.