Field hockey is a game played between two teams of up to 16 players, of whom 11 are allowed to participate in play at the same time. The game is played on a field called a “pitch” that is 100 yd. (91 m) long and 60 yd. (55 m) wide.
The purpose of the game is for a team to propel the ball into a net at the end of the field. The team that scores the most points wins the game.
Some proponents claim that field hockey is the third most popular participant sport in the world, following only association football (soccer) and cricket. Data from individual countries does not necessarily support that view. The most recent survey by Sport England (English Sport Council), for example, showed that 156,500 people participated in field hockey during the 2007-2008 participation period. That number ranked thirtieth in the nation after sports such as walking (9,069,900), swimming (5,570,100), football (soccer; 3,142,300), squash (486,200), union rugby (310,000), and weightlifting (172,700). In the United States, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported that a small number of high schools in the nation had field hockey teams for boys, with a total of 192 participants, but 1,808 high schools had girls' field hockey teams, with a total of 61,996 participants. Those teams were restricted to 19 of the 50 states. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) provides data on participation among female athletes in field hockey for the period ranging from 1981 to 2009 (the last year for which data are available). Those data show that the number of teams and participants has remained relatively constant over this period, ranging from 268 teams to 260 teams and 5,701 to 5,603 over the three-decade period. The NCAA provides no data on men's field hockey teams at the college level. Unlike many other sports, field hockey has essentially no professional-level component. In 2005, an effort was made to create a professional hockey league in India, the Premier Hockey League, consisting of five teams. The league lasted only three years before it was disbanded, leaving the sport without a professional league anywhere in the world.
Games in which participants attempt to manipulate a ball into a goal with sticks are as old as recorded history. Probably the oldest record of this kind dates to the second millennium BCE. Paintings on the Beni Hasan tombs in the Nile Valley of Egypt show men playing such games. Similar records are found in ancient Persian, Aztec, Ethiopian, and Roman civilizations. The modern game of hurling, played using a stick with an oval paddle at the end and a wooden ball, dates to at least 1272 BCE in Mongolia, and similar games with ancient histories have been recorded in wide-flung parts of the world, from Chile to Australia.
Modern field hockey dates to the mid-19th century when members of a number of cricket clubs began looking for a sport to play on cricket fields during the off-season winter months. Over time, a variation of association football (soccer) using sticks and a hard rubber ball developed, with modifications in the football rules that made the game safer for participants. The first field hockey team was the Blackheath Football and Hockey Club, established in 1861, and the first field hockey club was established in 1871 at Teddington, Middlesex, southwest of London. The club continues to exist today, supporting eight men's teams, six ladies' teams, and a large juniors program. The first formal rules for the game were adopted in 1874, and the first formal organization, a year later. That organization survived only a short time and was replaced as the sport's national governing body by The Hockey Association, created in 1886. Nine years later, a comparable organization for women, the All England Women's Hockey Association was founded. The two associations merged in 1997 to form the English Hockey Association, the sport's governing body in Great Britain.
During the second half of the 19th century, field hockey became popular in many parts of the world, largely as a consequence of Great Britain's expansionist activities in Africa, Asia, and other regions. The earliest efforts to form an international association of field hockey clubs occurred in 1909 when England and Belgium (and shortly thereafter, France) agreed to participate in joint competitions. By 1924, a group of European nations including Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary, Spain, and Switzerland joined together to create the Fédé ration Internationale de Hockey (International Hockey Federation, FIH), which continues to be the sport's international governing body. The FIH now includes representatives from 112 nations around the world. It sponsors five international championships each year, the Hockey World Cup, Hockey Junior World Cup, Hockey Champions Trophy, Hockey Champions Challenge, Indoor Hockey World Cup. In addition, it cooperates with the International Olympic Committee in operation of the Olympic championship competition in field hockey, an event that has been included in the Olympiads every year since 1928. The current holders of the World Cup in field hockey are Australia (men) and Argentina (women).
Field hockey is played on a field 100 yd. (91 m) long and 60 yd. (55 m) wide, called the pitch. The field is divided into quarters by a center line that bisects the long length of the field and by two 25-yard lines that bisect each half of the field thus produced. Two goals are placed at opposite ends of the field consisting of nets 4 yd. (3.7 m) wide and 7 ft. (2 m) high. A semicircle called the “striking circle” or simply the “D” is located at a distance of 16 ft. (5 m) from the outer edges of the goal. The pitch surface was originally made of grass, but later changed to sandy material and, more recently, to some form of composite such as AstroTurf that is kept watered to increase the speed of the game. A score is made when the ball is delivered into the goal along the surface of the field from any point within the striking circle.
In outdoor field hockey, each team consists of 11 players who may be assigned specific positions, although they may play at any point on the field. The goalie normally plays in front of his or her net in an effort to prevent the ball from entering the goal. Play begins when one of the two teams, chosen by the flip of a coin, makes an initial pass from the center of the field. At that point, all players except the initial passer must be within his or her own defensive zone. This initial situation is repeated at the beginning of the second half and each time a goal is scored, except the team not scoring the goal has the right to start the next sequence of plays. The game normally consists of two halves of 35 minutes each (30 minutes for women) with a 5 to 10 minute intermission between halves. No time outs are permitted except in case of an injury or a stoppage of play by one of two referees.
An important feature of field hockey is the “short corner,” an event in which a member of the attacking team is allowed to put the ball into play in one of the two corners of the defender's half of the field. The rest of the attacking team must start outside the scoring circle, while four defenders, in addition to the goalie, arrange themselves directly in front of the goal. The ball must pass out of the scoring circle before a member of the attacking team can try to hit it into the goal net. Because of the close quarters at which the play starts, short corners often result in the scoring of a goal. Games that are tied at the end of regulation play may or may not be continued to a decision, depending on the regulations for the league and competition involved. One common provision is a sudden-death overtime period scheduled to run 7.5 minutes in each direction. Some leagues simply score such a game as a tie.
A form of field hockey is also played indoors during the winter or in areas where an outdoor season is not suitable. Indoor field hockey is similar to the outdoor version, except that it is played on a smaller field with a more limited scoring circle and some restrictions on the types of shots allowed. Teams are limited to 6 players per team, rather than the 11 players in the outdoor version.