‘The penalty corner is dangerous and should be changed’
– a statement often seen in articles, on blogs and discussed at Hockey Club bars across the world. It provokes discussions about the pace of drag flicks, the danger caused by lifted balls and the format of the corners itself. I personally like the idea of a changing the current PC format to a rugby style penalty option ‘choice’ – 1 ‘goal’ for a simple injection / stop / flick routine versus a lone GK, or 2 ‘goals’ for a 4 v 2 active scenario, the same as that seen in the Australian Super 9’s – the offensive team can choose their option. But, that is a complex discussion which fundamentally changes the scoring system of our game and is not the purpose of this article – although I am sure it will shape other future discussions here, or across social media platforms.
The point here is that changes to the penalty corner are discussed because of the perceived danger it causes, but I think we are looking at it from the wrong angle. Players, coaches and even the games rule makers and officials are actively encouraging behaviour that causes increased risk and danger, but not in the way we may imagine.
That single dangerous behaviour is the encouragement of defenders on penalty corners to run straight down the line of the penalty corner drag flick, the stick a token piece of equipment held directly in front of the body to suggest an attempt to play the ball, but with the legs and body specifically placed between the ball and a portion of the goal.
It is not a new practice, in Sydney in 2000 the Korean side made the Olympic final by virtue of a defensive shut out v Pakistan in the semi-final, including stopping Sohail Abbas (one of the world’s best ever flickers) on 11 occasions. An incredible defensive effort, but one that resulted in three number one runners being substituted off, none returning to the field of play and one never playing again.
Fast forward to today we regularly see a number one runner accelerate from as close to the middle of the goal as possible, in one instance I have seen a runner using the goalkeepers kicker as a starting block. That runner is allowed to put on gloves, a box, head protection, extra shinguards and knee pads. I assume that cricket style thigh pads could be worn under shorts? Then what is to stop mini kickers being slipped on over trainers to protect from ball to foot impacts? Goalkeeping equipment is so light and flexible, what would stop the development of player legguards? I don’t think the current rules cater for sure a development.
And that is the issue! By allowing defenders to wear more protection we encourage a behaviour that itself creates danger with players sacrificing personal safety for results. If coaches and teachers have a duty of care then how can that be combined with a specific defensive routine designed to encourage a player to put their body in the line of a shot? Not from 15 yards as we see a post player trying to make saves with a stick, but actively blocking a part of the goal from within 2 or 3 meters of a shot with zero reaction time. You regularly see the same international behaviours taken into club hockey, just last week my club team faced a defensive routine with 2 defenders running high and hard, the second runner just off the shoulder of the first, creating a physical barrier denying any shot to the offensive right of the goal. Anyone denying that the practice occurs can watch highlights online of international corners on YouTube with a few simple key-strokes. Martin Haner of Germany denied Argentina in the FIH world league 3 competition on no less than 9 occasions, limping back goal-wards after charging down shot after shot after shot. It is happening at every level.
Who takes the first step to make a change? Our sport is exactly that, a sport, designed to find out who is best (that’s why we keep score!) so if the result matters, players and coaches will be innovators working to find new ways to win. That will include asking players to defend in ways that positively influence the outcome – at the ultimate level what would a player do in search of Olympic Gold?
So, if the behaviour is within the rules then it will continue to be seen. So, do the rules need to be changed, or implemented in a different way (maybe the rule already exists). If not then we are going to get quick-fit carbon and Kevlar pads strapped on to athletes willing to get hurt to achieve an outcome. We criticise something for being dangerous and yet allow an action that makes it more so. It should fall back on the rule makers to make such recommendations, players and coaches will not lead a change when the action can have positive (result) outcomes. But things must change from the top down, otherwise how long until we see a young player getting badly hurt in a school or club game as they copy the action of one of their heroes, only without the armour?
Images : @PlanetHockeyMag Simon Mason - The Hockey Paper