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There are some sports where you simply have to take your hat off to the participants for their displays of fitness, technical skills and overall sporting drama. Straight away your thoughts are drawn to sports such as Rugby League, Aussie Rules, Rugby 7’s and Gaelic Games but I’d also argue that Field Hockey, especially played at a top International level, certainly has a place amongst this group as well.

In recent years, Field Hockey has been a very pro-active sport in terms of adjusting various playing rules to help enhance the sport as a spectacle (surely many other sports could learn a few lessons from this no-fear approach too). Hockey has witnessed changes to rules around substitutions, set-pieces, discipline (including sin-bin) and has also introduced use of a video referral referee at top tournaments. Each rule change often subtly alters the game, to tweak with it, but the International Hockey Federation has also been brave with a few other changes, which have dramatically altered the entire physical nature of the sport, most notably, in 2009, the introduction of a rule called “auto-pass”. In an attempt to speed the game up even further, auto-pass allows a player who has been fouled/or making a restart to the game (e.g. sideline hit) to technically ‘pass-the-ball-to-himself’ and have a freedom of 5yrds without a further challenge. As a result, hockey has been transformed from a high-intensity intermittent sport, into a high-intensity ‘almost-continuous’ sport (especially when there are ball-boys available) which places a significant rise in physiological output. Added to this, modern players are continually increasing their level of technical skill (such as their use of backhand passes and shots) which has also significantly speeded the game as well. To this end, any hockey research on the physical & physiological demands pre-2009 probably doesn’t have much relevance to the modern game.

In July 2013, I was asked to perform some physiology consultancy to the Ireland Men’s Team at a 4-Nation tournament in Hamburg which also included Germany, the Netherlands and England (3 of the top 5 teams in the World at the time).

I chose to implement a Heart Rate Variability technology from Finland, called Firstbeat to complete real-time monitoring of training, matches, and morning recovery, as well as use Firstbeat devices (known as bodyguards) to measure how well the players slept & recovered during the tournament.  Firstbeat is used by many of the World’s top teams such as Red Bull, McLaren, Spanish FA, Man City FC and the British & Irish Lions. More about Firstbeat later…

Even as the squad assembled in Dublin airport, I could already see the physical shift in player anthropometry in recent years (the senior players were well-built and weighing around 75-80kg, reflecting the game pre-autopass ruling) whereas the younger players were all incredibly lean and all <70kg. Typically, hockey is played in tournaments and usually between 3 and 7 games squeezed into a similar number of days. In Hamburg, the schedule included:

Day 1 – Travel & Training
Day 2 – Vs Germany
Day 3 – Training & Recovery
Day 4 – Vs Netherlands
Day 5 – Vs England & Travel

I don’t imagine many sports would tolerate a match schedule like this. Temperatures were also high 30’s and the playing squad was 18 in total but only 16 can be used for a match so fatigue management and post-match recovery (nutrition + sleep) is absolutely critical just to get through a tournament. Interestingly, teams usually create a pre-planned ‘bench management’ schedule for each game, with substitutes rolling on and off approximately every 6minutes, such is the fierce intensity (I learnt that in club hockey the best players normally play for the full 70minutes indicating the intensity is so much less). The need to roll subs so frequently also requires players to have ability to play in multiple positions within their own departments (defender, midfielder, forward) and in some occasions, also switch departments.

Firstbeat was the ideal monitoring technology for this sport as it was able to capture the VO2max of the players and measure the EPOC on-field demands in real-time. As the data streamed in, we were able to adjust the pre-planned bench management accordingly and substitute players who were suffering most on the field, as well as quantify their readiness to return to the field depending on how well they recovered on the bench. Typically, during games all pitch time spent by all players was >90% HRmax and a sizeable proportion of that was spent >95%.

Firstbeat was also able to review the sleep quality of the players using the bodyguard device by capturing their overnight HRV. Also, our protocol before breakfast included a 5min Quick Recovery Check which allowed us to straight away review the readiness of the entire squad. This was achieved through the players wearing their heart-rate belts and simply lay in the corridor of the hotel for an extra snooze (no complaints).

Finally, what had to be a lasting memory of the Hamburg Tournament for me had to be the number of children (about 100!) who sprung out of the crowd and onto the pitch at every half-time and full-time to practice their skills (most 6yr olds could hit a solid backhand). It brought a real smile to my face to see so many kids active and enjoying practicing this fantastic sport, it’s no wonder the Germans are such a successful nation in this sport! – JB

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