An Olympic primer on the sport of field hockey

In the U.S., field hockey is primarily a women’s sport. But around the world – particularly in Argentina, India, Australia, and the United Kingdom – the sport attracts just as many, if not more, male athletes.

The greater Philadelphia area is actually one of the most popular regions in the United States for women’s field hockey. In fact, about a third of this year’s Olympic squad comes from this area.

In a field hockey game, teams face off with eleven players each. Each team has a goalie, who wears an impressive amount of protective gear to guard against the game’s hard plastic ball. The remaining ten players are typically arranged into three lines: offensive “forwards,” “midfielders,” and defensive “fullbacks.” An additional defensive position called the “sweeper” is often placed between the fullbacks and the goalie.

The point of the game is to put the rubber ball in the opposing team’s goal. The field is 100 yards by 60 yards, and the 70-minute game is divided into two halves.

The most unusual feature of the sport is the field hockey stick itself. Sticks are built with a short hook that measures less than a quarter of the size of an ice hockey stick. Another major difference between field hockey and ice hockey sticks is that field hockey sticks are flat on one side and rounded on the other. Players can only play the ball with the flat face of the stick, a rule that requires athletes to frequently rotate the stick in their hands in order to manipulate the ball.

The sport’s rules are elegant: Players may not use their bodies to block an opponent’s access to the ball or touch the ball with their feet. It is also illegal to use the sticks or balls in a way that endangers another player. For example, unless it’s a shot on goal, players cannot play the ball above their shoulders if another player is within five meters.

The game also uses a three-tiered penalty card system. A green cards acts as a warning, a yellow card sends a player into a “penalty box” for a set amount of time without substitution, and a red card permanently removes a player from the game.

A particularly dramatic moment in field hockey games are the penalty corners, which are awarded for offenses that occur within the 16 yard scoring semi-circles that surround each goal.

At the beginning of a penalty corner, five defenders position themselves along the back line, near the goal, and the rest of the defending team must stand beyond the center line, on the offending team’s side of the field. The attacking players position themselves along the outside of the scoring semi-circle, except for one teammate, who stands along the back line and pushes the ball into play.

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