What is the Most Important Position in Field Hockey?

What is the Most Important Position in Field Hockey?

Field Hockey Positions

To excel in any sport, you must master all aspects of the game. This holds true for field hockey. To master this complex team sport and make its execution look effortless, you start with the basics and tackle each game component, one by one. To start, let’s ask the question, “What is the most important position in field hockey?”

The goalkeeper is the most important position in field hockey. Quick reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and communication are essential to this position. With playing surfaces and match format changes, field hockey has become a sport where ball control, quick passing moves, and non-stop movement are crucial, making goalkeeper the most important position.

Are you eager to gain field hockey expertise and develop a clear understanding of this high-intensity, strategic game? Keep reading this article and discover knowledge that will help you on your way to perfecting your game.

Field Hockey in a Nutshell

Field hockey is an international sport played by men and women. While primarily associated with outdoor play on grass or turf, the game can be played on any surface, for instance, indoors or on the beach.

We can trace the origins of field hockey back to ancient Persia and Greece, and even earlier to Ancient Egypt circa 4000 BC. The precise origin of the word hockey is unknown, but it might come from the French hocquet, meaning shepherd’s crook, referring to the stick’s crooked ends (source).

Traditionally popular among Commonwealth nations, field hockey’s top 20 ranked teams have representatives from all five continents. This universal sport has over 30 million players, 137 National Associations of field hockey, Olympic status, and a strong footing in high schools and tertiary education across the globe (source).

The International Field Hockey Federation’s launch of Pro League in 2019 is arguably the most significant indication of the sport’s rapid expansion.

While outdoor field hockey is arguably the most popular, indoor hockey, beach hockey, hockey5’s, and para-ID hockey have all gained popularity with numerous national, continental, and international championships.

In the past 15 years, field hockey has undergone, in quick succession, a series of revolutionary changes. The most important is the transition from natural grass to synthetic playing surfaces, standardized sticks, the self-start rule, and the match format (source).

Field Hockey Positions

Field hockey positions are not set in stone, and the game allows a lot of flexibility for players to cross the pitch. Most players are utility players, as they have mastered the skill of playing multiple positions competently.

While positions are important in field hockey, the skill-set of players far outweighs it. For players to seamlessly switch positions, they must display a high level of confidence in ball possession and possess excellent ball-control skills (source).

There are four central positions: forwards, midfielders, defenders, and the goalkeeper.


Forwards, also known as attackers or strikers, are responsible for moving play forward. They create opportunities that lead to goals. Forwards are expected to score the majority of the goals in any given game.

Forwards can be positioned across the forward line, enabling them to play as a line. Apart from a center forward on the middle line, a team can consist of formations with a right or left inner forward on the line, and a right and left-wing on the outside of the line (source).

Forward play is highly technical and requires quick reflexes, perfect footwork, stickwork, ball control, body control, and the element of surprise to outsmart and break through the defensive wall (source).

Midfielders or Halfbacks

Midfielders, also known as halfbacks or links, line up in the middle of the field and play both defensive and offensive hockey. They play a critical role as the link between defence and attack.

As is the case with forwards, halfbacks can be placed in the center or right and left-wing, and we find various combinations in different formations.

Defenders or Fullbacks

Defenders, also known as fullbacks, are primarily responsible for defending the goal and goalkeeper and preventing or intercepting the opponent’s attempts to score. They are placed between the goalkeeper and midfielders, usually on the left and right inner side.

Some formations use a sweeper, which is a defender placed either in front or behind the defensive line.

The Goalkeeper

The goalkeeper’s primary responsibility is to prevent goals and coordinate the defence to protect the goal. To use their body to play the ball, they must remain in the scoring circle (source).

Depending on strategy and tactics, positions can be modified and adapted into sets or loosely formed formations.

The Vital Role of the Goalkeeper

The Vital Role of the Goalkeeper

Image by malcwest via Pixabay

The most important position in field hockey is that of the goalkeeper. Since the goal tally is generally low in any given hockey game, preventing goals is crucial. While each field position contributes to goal prevention, the goalkeeper has the last hand.

Let’s have a closer look at the physical, emotional, and mental characteristics a goalkeeper should possess to defend the goal in the best way possible.

Ideal physical characteristics include quick reflexes, agility, speed, endurance, good eyesight, and excellent hand-eye coordination. Confidence, courage, and a pleasant personality are also critical emotional qualities. Mental features include intelligence, anticipation, and sound judgment (source).

What ties it all together is the goalkeeper’s central communication role, especially around defensive strategies. Clear and quick communication in a fast-paced, high-intensity environment is crucial. It enables split-second decisions and provides structure in chaotic situations.

While the goalkeeper is the most important field hockey position, some have argued that the center halfback is the cleverest and most skilled player who directs play (source).

If you want to find out what the most challenging position is in field hockey, read our helpful article,
What is the Hardest Position in Field Hockey?

If you are wondering what the most straightforward position is, let us reassure you, there is none. Field Hockey is an intense game that requires a jigsaw puzzle-like set of skills including speed, complete control of its two main props, the stick and ball, and a tip-top physical and mental condition.

Important Skills in Field Hockey

Important Skills in Field Hockey

Image by malte_berg via Pixabay

The most important field hockey skills pivot around the game’s two anchors, namely the stick and the ball. In fact, they go hand in hand. A players’ real competency in field hockey is linked to their ability to master these seemingly basic skills through flawless and effortless execution.

How to Master the Basics

Stick speed, ball control, and passing are primary skills in field hockey. Only complete control and flawless execution will distinguish an amateur from a professional hockey player.

We have listed the most basic offensive and defensive stick techniques that will increase speed, proficiency, accuracy, and improve ball control through rigorous field hockey drills. The goal is to effect change in a small area, with minimum effort and maximum control (source).

The first essential skill is trapping, receiving the ball under control, and passing it onward. This skill, also known as the first touch, allows you to determine your next move. The more you practice and improve your ability to receive the ball from any given direction, the better.

Defensive stick speed techniques include block tackle, where the entire stick is used to block or take the ball from the opponent. The player lowers the stick to the ground in an attempt to block the opponent’s ball.

Jab tackle, another defensive skill, is used when the ball is unprotected. The player jabs the stick to the ball with the left hand stretched out to return to both hands in one swift movement (source).

Reverse tackle is used by lowering the left-hand parallel to the pitch and simultaneously lowering the body as far down as possible to maximize reach, causing the opponent to lose the ball (source).

Offensive techniques include push, the quick movement with hands apart, with no backswing. Hit requires a backswing and causes a long follow-through. Lift, flic, and aerial are primarily used for shots at the goal or to raise the ball during a long pass.

A dribble means controlling the ball through short strokes of the stick and moving the ball from left to right. A forehand and reverse sweep are both excellent techniques for long passes and shots. Lastly, drag flick is a scoring technique seen in elite field hockey and is popular in penalties (source).

To excel in stick-speed and ball-control, a number of underlying skills are frequently at play, such as acceleration, agility, quick footwork, body posture, and body position. The next time you see a player in action, remember these intrinsically interwoven skills on display.

How to Build a Winning Strategy

Building and executing a winning strategy is on every coach, player, and field hockey enthusiast’s mind. What is the secret to a winning strategy in field hockey?

While we have determined that complete control and perfect execution of the basics, the stick and ball, are essential, there are undoubtedly other factors at play.

Offensive and defensive strategies, an intelligent understanding and approach to the game, teamwork, communication, and superior physical and emotional health are essential elements of any winning formula. Still, is that sufficient and grounds for winning?

Maybe the secret of the winning strategy does not lie in the reflection of the game itself but how its foundations and underlying principles have been applied in other sports.

And while the examples and implementations are not yet worldwide, according to the Wall Street Journal, it has become apparent that soccer, particularly in the Netherlands, largely draws insight, strategy, and wisdom from field hockey.

What has been so striking about the comparison with soccer has been an implicit yet very descriptive definition of the game’s winning strategy.

The first essential ingredient is full-speed movement with complete control of a ball in a small confined space. Next, there’s seamless switching of positions with each player equally comfortable and skilled in possession.

There’s also expert close control and intelligent off-the-ball movement. The result is a winning formula, mastery of the ball, quick passing moves, and non-stop movement (source).

While the key ingredients for a winning strategy might be present, there is always room for improvement. A study in 2012 found that the inclusion of visual skills in field hockey training and drills had noticeable improvements, especially in goalkeepers (source).

So, there you have it. The most important position in field hockey can be improved upon — what luck.

The Playing Field

The playing field of field hockey has evolved and changed quite dramatically over the years. Most significantly, with the game’s adaptation to synthetic surfaces and the standardization of the match format by the FIH in 2019.

The Rules

Differences in hockey field rules have existed across local, national, and international competitions, and the FIH has been essential in standardizing the Rules of Hockey (source). Its most recent rule changes and adaptations came into effect on January 1, 2019.

While many rules apply, we have highlighted the most important ones that have undoubtedly left their mark on modern-day field hockey.

The FIH outlines very specific guidelines for the hockey stick. Apart from needing to be completely smooth, sticks cannot be longer than 1.094 yards (1 meter) with a maximum weight of 26 ounces (737 grams). Only the flat left side of the stick may be used to strike the ball (source).

While the ball was originally a cricket ball, the FIH stipulates any material is allowed as long as the ball weighs between 5.50 and 5.75 ounces (156 and 163 grams) with a circumference of 8.82 to 9.25 inches (224mm to 235mm) (source).

Each team in field hockey consists of a total of 11 players, including the goalkeeper. Substitutes can occur as frequently as desired without limitations.

Seven players are available on the bench for rolling substitutions in national games. During the Olympics and Pan American games, only five players are allowed on the bench (source).

In 2009, the self-start rule, also known as self-pass, was introduced in field hockey. A self-pass enables a player to take a free hit to pass the ball to himself before passing or hitting the ball. While the pass can be taken in a split second, the ball must be entirely stationary prior to passing.

As of 2019, the standard match format for international games is four quarters of 15 minutes each. There are two, two-minute intervals in between quarters one and two and quarters three and four. There is also a longer halftime interval of five minutes in between quarters two and three (source).

While the above match format had been played in international games for some years, local and national competitions often consisted of two halves of 30 to 35 minutes, with a 10-minute halftime.

While a field player with goalkeeping privileges was previously allowed on the field, the FIH enforced a mandatory experiment in 2019, removing that privilege. Teams can now only choose between a goalkeeper in the traditional sense or 11 field players with no goalkeeper.

Every field hockey game kicks off after a coin toss with a center pass from the center circle in any direction. They repeat this after each goal and at halftime.

A foul is an unfair or invalid play that leads to a free hit, penalty corner, or penalty stroke. Field hockey uses a three-card system for warnings and penalizations. Green requires a two-minute time-out, yellow five minutes, whereas red results in the removal of a player from the field (source).

A bully, also known as a face-off, restarts the game after a time-out due to an injury or other reason. This often happens in the case of a double foul, when no penalty has been given by the empire (source).

The Pitch

Field hockey is played on a 100-yard by 60-yard (91.40 by 55 meter) rectangular field with a centerline and two 25-yard (22.86 meters) lines. As in soccer, there are marked sides and end lines. We will quickly run you through the main pitch terminology and their implications for the game.

The goal in field hockey is 7 feet (2.14 meters) high, 12 feet (3.66 meters) wide, and 4 feet (1.20 meters) deep. The stroke mark refers to the dash, positioned 7 yards (6.4m) away from the goal, to indicate where a penalty corner is to be taken from.

The scoring circle is positioned 16 yards (14.6m) from the goal. Goals only count when balls are hit or deflected within this circle. A foul within the 16-yard circle automatically leads to a penalty corner.

The 5-yard (4.57m) mark is 5 yards outside of the scoring circle, and penalty corners end when the ball crosses this line.

The corner mark indicates the position, 11 yards (10 meters) from the goal, where penalty corners are taken. The defender mark indicates the closest position where a defender can stand during a penalty corner, namely 5.5 yards (5 meters) away (source).

Synthetic turfs, introduced in the 1970s, include filled, dressed, and water-based surfaces. A synthetic pitch consists of a carpet with fibres, such as nylon, polypropylene, or polyethylene, followed by an infill, then a shock-pad and, finally, an asphalt or stone base (source)

The FIH recommends either sand-filled or sand-dressed turfs, while, globally, the water-based un-filled synthetic turf is often preferred (source).

As a result of synthetic turf, field hockey has become quicker, faster, and requires significant levels of aerobic and anaerobic capacity, strength, and power from its players (source).

Final Thoughts

While the goalkeeper arguably has the most important role in the game, each player’s skillful and superior performance has proven to be essential in producing and executing a flawless and effortless winning strategy.

A tremendous amount of skill is essential in any sport. The incredible speed, complete control of stick and ball, quick passes, and non-stop movement make field hockey a particularly striking sport.

The arrival of synthetic playing surfaces, the standardization of match formatting, and equipment accelerated the speed, pace, and skill-set of players contributing to the sport’s universal appeal.