OPINION: GOGGLES MANDATE NEEDS TO BE SCRAPPED

By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It seemed almost a fait accompli that the National Federation of State High School Associations will mandate eyewear for field hockey in early 2006, until the proposal was voted down thanks to an uproar from the field hockey community.

In a sport fighting for its very relevance in the international level, and demanding of a high level of performance for players as young as the age of 14, this is the dumbest thing that the National Federation could do.

Why?

First of all, there is a rapid improvement and spread of artificial competition surfaces from New England to California to Illinois. Coaches and athletic directors, from small towns to moneyed preparatory schools, realize that artificial grass and turf are good investments not only in the physical plant, but in their athletes.

And as a result of the smoother surfaces, you do not have the ball jumping off knots in the grass, creating the potential for injury.

Two, there is a lot more "skill" play being emphasized across America. Hundreds of players, not only a few dozen, now have those "pool table" skills which can usually be only seen in Tests. Where there may have been resistance to the enhancement of individual skill a few years ago -- to the point where scholastic players with high-performance training were asked not to use those tools -- coaches are realizing that having players with gifted hands and game sense only enhance teambuilding.

Third, there is the beginning of a movement in the United States towards more pragmatic and safe tackling on the ball. Tackling from the left of a ballcarrier creates more injuries in the game than just about any other action. But in 2005, USA Field Hockey hired Terry Walsh, the former coach of the Australian and Dutch men's sides, as U.S. Director of High Performance.

In a speech at the 2005 National Field Hockey Coaches Association convention, Walsh went over several points where he believed the United States needed improvement. The very first point he mentioned was proper defensive positioning. That perked up the ears of many of the coaches in the room.

The final reason that goggles are not a good idea is that metallic eyewear such as worn in lacrosse is not allowed at the highest level of field hockey -- international Test rules. And, given the fact that all universities, plus a handful of high schools, play international rules, any NFHS ruling will have no bearing on them.

But significant damage could be done to player development if eyewear were to be made mandatory. Players would lose peripheral vision -- especially downward. The goggles, meant to be used for a sport where the ball is at eye level for lacrosse, are in no way meant for a sport where the ball is on the ground.

In addition, players from states where goggles were mandatory may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage when they get to the next level of play because they would have been taught how to tackle properly, strike the ball low and flat, and, in general, would not have learned how to play the game safely.

The impending goggle mandate is a little like banning the dunk in basketball or eliminating bodychecking in the offensive zone in ice hockey -- two ideas which were tried until their effects on the competitive level of the athletes in these particular sports were questioned.

The proof is in the results; was it any wonder that the United States Olympic men's basketball team lost the 1972 gold medal in the middle of the ban on the dunk in the college game? Was it any wonder that Canada was able to win the Summit Series with the Soviet Union after the international ban on offensive checking was lifted in 1968?

In field hockey, this could result in college coaches, already heavily reliant on foreign players to bolster the level of play on their teams, could choose to skip domestic recruiting altogether.

In order to dramatize the level of opposition to the rule, coaches' associations in the 26 states that sanction the sport (plus the various multi-state leagues such as WNEPSAA, MAPL, SPL and MWAA) need to call on their rulesmakers to switch from National Federation rules to FIH rules.

Mind you, it's not because goggles aren't a good idea; indeed, they are great for people recovering from a head injury and for protection for high-risk duties such as corner flying. But they should not be made mandatory, by fiat of the Federation; a "strongly recommended" phrase would suffice.

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