Field Hockey Popularity
Similar to how soccer is referred to as football in certain parts of the world, making the distinction between ice hockey and field hockey is important as well, depending on where in the world you are.
Field hockey is a popular sport because so many ancient cultures across the world had a sport resembling field hockey, leading to its rapid adoption. In modern times, it is a fast-paced and technical sport that is exciting to watch. Players can compete internationally in places such as at the Olympics.
From the historical precedents of the ancient world to the development of the modern game, there’s a lot to consider when looking at field hockey’s worldwide popularity. In this article, we will look at how field hockey has risen in popularity in some parts of the world, highlighting key events that paved the way for this to happen as well.
Prior to field hockey as we know it today, many people groups around the world played something that resembled field hockey.
These variants date back very far. Though they were geographically far apart, it is interesting to observe how similar they are to each other. For a more in-depth look at the history of the sport, read our article, “Where Did Field Hockey Originate?“
Archaeologists unearthed ancient Greek murals, which they believe to date back to 510 BC, depicting two players playing kerētízein, a game representing a mixture between billiards and field hockey.
There were also resemblances to field hockey found in Ancient Egypt. A depiction found in the tomb of Khety, an Ancient Egyptian administrator, shows players engaging in a sport similar to kerētízein.
In 16th-century Chile, the native invented a game the Spanish would call “Chueca,” which bears many similarities to modern field hockey. Chueca is Spanish for crooked, referring to the hook of the stick used for playing.
In 300 BC, East Asians played a sport similar to field hockey using sticks and a wooden ball. This could explain beikou, a sport played by the Daur people in Inner Mongolia for thousands of years, which also bears similarities to field hockey.
These shared histories meant that field hockey had a foundation from which to build. The sport wasn’t such a foreign concept to the people groups, and the likenesses to their cultural sports would mean they’d be very popular in those areas.
It still required someone to formalize field hockey as a sport and bring all these variations together under one unified sporting code.
Among other sports, British soldiers played field hockey while travelling the world in the days of the British Empire (source). This led to the first “international match,” as troops hailing from Ireland and Wales played one another in 1895.
As the British Empire spread throughout the world, so too did the soldiers’ pastimes. The British could use sport to bridge the cultural gaps between the colonizers and the local population.
A predisposition due to a historical version of the game was just one aspect of whether or not field hockey gained popularity in the various nations. It certainly would have helped, but each colony would have had a different reaction to the introduction of field hockey.
Gradually, as field hockey became a recognized international sport, national pride became a factor in its popularity.
Field hockey was first played in the Summer Olympics in 1908, hosted in London (source). The Olympic Committee purposefully dropped it in 1924 due to a lack of international structure in the game’s governing bodies. It was reinstated in 1928 and has been a permanent fixture thereafter.
Nations like India became a powerhouse in the sport, alongside another British sport, cricket. The Indian national team won six consecutive Olympic gold medals between 1928 and 1956.
India lost some of its dominance in the 80s when the adoption of astroturf fields meant richer, more developed nations gained an advantage. For more information on where field hockey is most popular, make sure you read our article on that topic.
Sports that are fun for spectators to watch gain a lot of popularity as well. As technology has evolved, sports have modernized with it.
These modernizations helped speed up gameplay and, through allowing players higher control of the ball, developed a more skillful approach to the game as well. Next, we’ll mention some of the modernizations that have made the game quicker and more fun to watch.
Synthetic grass playing surfaces were first introduced in the 1970s, with the first Olympic Games being held on artificial grass in Montreal in 1976.
The turf is many times smoother than regular grass fields and intentionally sprayed with water to increase the speed of the ball moving across the surface, making for a fast-paced and technical game.
Dribbling skills became much more prevalent in the game, with players having far greater control over the ball on the flatter surface.
Intentional lifting of the ball became part of the modern game as well, allowing the ball to be moved from one area of the pitch to the other very quickly.
By moving away from multi-purpose grass fields to a purpose-built synthetic field, the fields were protected from harsher sporting codes on the turf, like rugby and football. They also commonly feature stadiums built around them, allowing crowds to enjoy the matches.
In general, a field hockey pitch drastically affects the game, and the move to synthetic grass has created a faster flow that makes for more exciting matches.
The FIH, the ruling body for field hockey, experimented with rule changes in 2009 to allow for a more free-flowing game (source).
They identified rules that obstructed the speed of play, such as the player restarting play from a free hit, only being allowed to touch the ball once in the act of setting the ball into play.
This meant that, should the player miss-hit the ball, another teammate would need to quickly run and assist since the free hit taker couldn’t touch the ball a second time without giving away a free hit themselves.
The experimental revision of the rules allowed players to play the ball to themselves, bypassing the need for another player to touch the ball before they played it again.
These “self-passes” were a massive success. They allowed players to counterattack quickly and get the game restarted as soon as possible.
These experimental rule changes have since been adopted permanently to the benefit of play speed, making it more fun to watch.
Though perhaps not as brutal as full-contact sports, field hockey does still have injuries. Thankfully, safety gear has evolved with the sport, and there are many ways players can protect themselves.
The most notable safety gear in field hockey is the goalkeeper’s gear. Every inch of the goalkeeper’s front is padded, from the kickers over their boots, specially shaped leg protection, thigh and groin padding, chest, arm, and hand moldings, and, of course, a helmet.
A field hockey goalkeeper’s gear closely resembles that of an ice hockey goaltender.
There is a specific set piece where defending outfield players wear face shields since they are attempting to block a direct shot on goal. These shields have been specifically engineered to take a hard knock while not affecting the player’s field of vision.
A facial injury could be very serious, particularly at the speeds that top players can shoot a ball, which is why more players are using these shields.
Even advancements in the materials used have improved how field hockey is played. For example, the stick started out as a bulky, solid piece of wood with a hook to give a large surface area for hitting the ball.
As players became more accurate and playing surfaces became smoother, heavy sticks were a nuisance. Materials like carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar were favoured instead.
By manufacturing sticks out of these materials, they became much more durable than standard wood that would begin to splinter in time, which is something we covered in our “How Long Do Field Hockey Sticks Last?“ article.
Field hockey got another boost to its popularity when its indoor variant gained global attention. Regular field hockey has touchlines and backlines, which, should the ball go out of play, would require teams to restart from where the ball went out.
However, indoor hockey does not have that, and the ball is always considered in play. This bears a massive resemblance to ice hockey and would explain why it boosted field hockey’s popularity as well (source).
Though largely dwarfed by ice hockey, field hockey is still prevalent in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states in the US.
It is primarily played as a high school sport, and predominantly by girls. Constance M.K. Applebee is credited for bringing field hockey to the United States in 1901 (source).
Some ice hockey players attempt to pick up field hockey in their off-season, to keep their hand-eye skills finely tuned.
It’s important to remember that, unlike in ice hockey, it is only legal to play the ball with the front of a field hockey stick.
The rise of the British Empire may have been what brought the sport of field hockey to the world, but multiple factors have fanned the flames of its popularity and helped it spread. It has evolved itself into a modern game that is as appealing to watch as it is to play and, all things considered, is deserving of being a well-supported sport!