Field hockey is a game that has been played in varying forms and in different cultures for over 4,000 years, as the striking of a ball with a stick either towards a goal or away from an opponent is a universal sporting concept. While field hockey bears an initial physical similarity to ice hockey, the closest sporting cousin to field hockey is soccer, both in respect to the shape and dimensions of the playing field, and the 11 players common to each sport.
The rules of the modern field hockey game were first codified in England in the mid-1800s. Field hockey has become a popular sport throughout the world, particularly in many European countries, India, and Pakistan. In North America, field hockey enjoys a primarily female following, where it is competed at both a high school and a university level. The governing body of world field hockey is the International Hockey Federation, the FIH, founded in 1924. Field hockey was first introduced into the Olympics in 1908.
The object of field hockey is to direct a hard plastic ball using a stick into the opposing goal. The ball can be advanced up the field against the opposing team by a player dribbling the ball, which includes any use of the stick to keep the ball under control while the player moves down the field; by passing the ball; or by driving the ball ahead and running after it. The field hockey pitch is a 100 yd by 60 yd (90 m by 55 m) rectangular surface; the surface may be either natural grass or artificial turf. The introduction of artificial turf in field hockey, a process which began in the late 1970s in elite competition, has proven to be one of the most significant changes in the history of the game. Players can run faster, and the reduction in friction between the ball and the artificial surfaces has created a faster style of play with a ball that tends to run true on all passes and shots. Each team has 10 players in the field, plus a goal keeper, who protects a goal that is 7 ft high and 12 ft wide (2.1 m by 3.6 m). The goal is at the center of a 16-yd arc, within which the ball must be shot for a goal to be counted. Like soccer, there is also provision for a penalty stroke, awarded for serious infractions committed with the arc. The penalty stroke is taken from a designated spot 7 yd (6.4 m) in front of the goal. Minor infractions are the subject of a penalty corner, which is similar to an indirect free kick in soccer. On the penalty corner, the ball is directed into the shooting area for a shot by a team mate, as opposed to being driven directly at the goal. A tactical departure from soccer is the absence of an offside rule, meaning that any player on a field hockey team is permitted to take a position behind the last defender.
One of the remarkable features of field hockey is the fact that each stick is designed to permit only a right-handed shot. The stick is approximately 3 ft (0.9 m) long, and it must be carried by each player in a manner that does not pose an undue risk to one's opponents. The ball similarly may not be struck or directed in any manner that, in the opinion of the referee, poses a risk to other players. The composition of the stick, often from carbon fiber or composite materials, creates a greater coefficient of restitution in the stick shaft that was possible with stiffer wood construction, which results in greater energy being transferred from the muscles of the player to the ball when it is struck. Coupled with the reduced friction of an artificial surface, the field hockey ball can be passed or shot on goal with considerable velocity. For this reason, goalkeepers wear protective equipment similar to that worn by their ice hockey equivalents—chest protectors, upper body protection, a full mask and helmet, and shin protection.
Field hockey is intended as a non-contact sport, and the deliberate strike of an opponent with either one's stick or body at any time in a game will result in the imposition of a penalty. The legal method of preventing an opponent from advancing a ball or making a pass is with a tackle, the field hockey term for the use of the stick by the defender to take the ball from an offensive player.
An elite-level field hockey game is 70 minutes in length, and as with all running sports, emphasis is placed on both aerobic and anaerobic fitness of the athletes in the course of training. Core strength, the inter-related development of the abdominal, gluteal (buttocks), and lumbar (lower back) muscles, is essential to field hockey success, as a successful athlete must move in a stable and explosive fashion forwards, backwards, and laterally. Physical size alone is not a significant advantage in field hockey. As a primarily outdoor, warm-weather sport, field hockey players must pay particular attention to the development of strong hydration practices, coupled with training that serves to acclimatize them to warm-weather competition.
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