Womens Sports History

A History of Hockey – Part 4

In the concluding part of this series Penny Hopkins explores the development of equipment and how the game needs to hold its own in women’s sport

We’ve seen already how hockey has expanded into every corner of the world and during its history the stick, ball and other equipment has changed dramatically.  From sticks to balls, pitches to protective wear the hockey player today looks very different to even a few decades ago.  So let’s take a look at how the game has changed for the player and spectator.


Spalding hockey ad_1The equipment, rules and playing area has had an effect on the sport’s development as modern materials have improved the game.  It was always a game of a ball with a stick, but, as we’ve already seen, the ball wasn’t always round. In nineteenth century England it was a seven-ounce rubber cube. It then became a seamed leather ball, similar to that used in cricket, until now it is made from hard plastic and thus, impervious to water damage from a synthetic water-fed pitch.


hockey sticks_2There have been many variations of and developments to the stick but in the rules only three parts of it are specified: the head, the handle and the splice. When you research this subject you can find pages and pages of technical detail as to length, width, angles of bend, hook, straight or bowed handles, and even kinked handles, all of which is interesting, if somewhat complicated. For the purposes of this history we will just consider the major changes.

Traditionally the stick would have been wooden, made from hickory, ash or mulberry and although wooden sticks continue to be made today, their popularity has been overtaken by sticks made from fibreglass, aramid fibre and carbon fibre.

RELATED: A History of Hockey Parts 1-3

hockey sticks_1The length of the head has been the most prone to changing trends. It started long— sometimes in excess of 300mm — but it began to shorten in the 1860s when hockey took off in India. At that time only one side of the stick could be used, which meant a shorter head made it easier to move the stick around the ball and change the direction of dribble.

The tendency to shorten it reached a peak in the mid-1980s when some heads made for the 1986 World Cup were only 95mm in length. But these changes were thought excessive and in most cases the stick was considered unusable.

The 1980s also saw the introduction of the upturned “toe”, called the “hook” and also the midi and “J” shaped heads, but by the end of the decade, the International Hockey Federation (IHF) had restricted the upturn of toe to 100mm.

Spalding hockey ad_2By the 1990s bends to the edges of the handle were allowed and also specialist sticks for goalkeepers were introduced.

By the 2000s “composite” make-up of sticks became prevalent and the number of standard head shapes available was five. By the middle of the decade the focus had switched to the “permitted bow”. At first the maximum was 50mm but in 2006 it was changed to 25mm.
In the last few years rule changes have gone back to the basics of length and weight as in 2013 the maximum weight allowed was changed to 737 grams. The stick is now usually 89-95cm long – the maximum length was changed to 105cm in 2016.

Stick evolution was obviously very important to the development of the game, but sports history aficionados would probably cite the move to synthetic pitches as hockey’s most significant innovation. Artificial pitches are now mandatory in international tournaments, but they actually didn’t make their first appearance until the early 1970s.

The 1976 Montreal Games was the first Olympics to use a synthetic pitch

There are currently three main types of surface used:

– Unfilled or water-based – most popular, it requires regular watering to prevent wear.
– Dressed or sand-dressed – sand supports the fibres for some of its depth
– Filled or sand-filled – longer fibres with support from sand for all of its depths

The water-based surface may encourage a faster game but it may not be a long-term solution due to the need for water conservation, so we may see more of the alternatives in the future.

The new 3G pitches, commonly used in football, have been put forward as an option, but the FIH sees them as too slow and inconsistent to be a viable alternative.

The speeding-up of the game has also encouraged the development of better safety equipment. All goalkeepers have to wear helmets and the padding is now much thicker. More padding is worn by all players and mouth-guards are now compulsory in many countries.

Artificial pitches are undoubtedly the way forward for hockey, but the move has not been without criticism. As mentioned earlier in this series, there is a great inequality of access to artificial pitches worldwide, especially in Africa; for example, there is only one synthetic pitch in the whole of Ghana. India, also, has struggled with the change and most of their players don’t get to play on suitable synthetic surfaces until their late teens.

The Future

The next World Cup will be in London in 2018 and will take place at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, built for the 2012 Olympics. As the host nation, England will obviously be hoping to build on the buzz created by Team GB’s Olympic gold in Rio in 2016. To maintain the momentum over two years will be a difficult task – will the millions who stayed up to watch the gold medal match still be inspired to buy tickets for the World Cup?

And if spectators are sometimes fickle, so too can be the media coverage. We can only wonder how broadcast coverage will develop or how the print and online media will increase it’s coverage of this popular sport.

Sports Team Up
With three women’s team sport World Cups due to be held in the UK over the next three years, the three governing bodies in England have got together to introduce “Team UP” to encourage girls and women into sport. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), England Hockey and England Netball have joined forces in a campaign to get 150,000 girls aged 7-13 involved. Teachers in primary and secondary schools can access free training and resources.



With a number of new initiatives in developing nations this situation should improve, albeit slowly. While we are encouraging children to pick up a stick, this must be backed up with investment in infrastructure and facilities.

When it comes to the progression of women’s hockey, the likelihood of it gaining even more popularity is reliant on the same components as most women’s sports: media coverage, sponsorship, resources.

Hockey is in a good place right now, but like some other women’s sports it needs to continue expanding both its player and fan-base in order to not just build on its history but maintain its position in women’s sport.



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