You are here

Aye for an eye?

College field hockey stares down a protective-equipment issue

By Gary Brown

The collegiate field hockey community is weighing whether a recommendation to require protective eyewear is good for the game.

Citing increased rates of injuries to the face and head, the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports is recommending that NCAA field hockey work toward requiring players to wear protective eyewear in the near future.

Increased rates of injuries to the head and face has led the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports to recommend required protective eyewear for field hockey players.

The eyewear requirement was implemented at the high school level last year. That action, combined now with the suggestion from the NCAA’s primary health and safety board, is prompting a broader discussion at the collegiate, national and international levels.

The competitive-safeguards committee based its recommendation on NCAA data showing that 25 percent of all injuries in field hockey competitions occur to the head and face, with 28 percent of those being from contact with the ball and another 16 percent because of contact with the stick. Although rare, 8 percent of head injuries involve the eye (eye injuries include eyelid lacerations, corneal abrasions, orbital fractures, soft tissue contusion and others). 

“We’re trying to mitigate data we’ve seen from our Injury-Surveillance System indicating that eye injuries are a potential risk in field hockey,” said Jeff Anderson, chair of the committee and director of sports medicine at the University of Connecticut. “Those data, along with the action the high schools took, prompted us to suggest that eyewear eventually be mandatory.”

The original request from Anderson’s committee last summer was for the requirement to be in place by next season, but feedback and presentations from researchers and equipment experts at the committee’s most recent meeting in December prompted the group to delay the effective date of the proposal until additional testing can be done on the eyewear currently available to ensure it is appropriate for the collegiate game.

All three of the NCAA’s divisional championships committees are aware of the recommendation and have referred the matter to the respective field hockey committees, which in turn are soliciting feedback from coaches and other constituents.

The early returns indicate support for enhancing player safety where appropriate, but many coaches worry that the eyewear designed to protect their players actually puts them more at risk. 

The matter is complicated at the NCAA level because there’s no standing playing rules committee for the sport. However, the field hockey committees in all three divisions routinely review the playing rules that are developed by the international committee and modify them for use in the college game – a process similar to other NCAA sports without a standing rules committee.

The eyewear issue at the college level may end up being decided by the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which has the responsibility to review and decide on rules modifications for all NCAA sports, including those without stand-alone NCAA rules committees. While the competitive-safeguards committee doesn’t report to the playing rules panel, the panel may be the most logical destination within the NCAA governance structure for the matter to be resolved.

High school restrictions

The rules committee at the high school level didn’t recommend eyewear, either, but the National Federation of State High School Associations nonetheless adopted the requirement last April. 

The Federation’s sports medicine advisory committee had been suggesting action for several years, but the rules committee routinely turned it down, based in part on not believing that data required action and that the testing to date hadn’t been adequate. Last year, though, the Federation’s board of directors overturned the rules committee decision, mandating that all 51 state associations require the more than 64,000 student-athletes in the sport to don eyewear that meets standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials, the de facto regulatory body for protective equipment in the sport.

Elliot Hopkins, the field hockey liaison at the Federation, pointed out that some state associations already had mandated eyewear (about 40 percent of players wore it already), so the board’s decision wasn’t that jarring to the high school community. Since then, though, Hopkins said he’s received some pushback from coaches and parents.

Hopkins said he’s heard some complaints about injuries that are perceived to becaused by the eyewear (such as a girl needing stitches after a ball forced the eyewear to gash her brow), but in defense of the Federation’s action, Hopkins said, “Stitches are a lot cheaper than a prosthetic eye.”

There also are complaints about how eyewear – usually some form of goggle – restricts a player’s peripheral vision. Hopkins says he’s aware that many college coaches don’t like it, and that even USA Field Hockey seems to disagree with the mandate, but Hopkins maintains that the Federation was acting on behalf of its constituents and not concerned about what other governing bodies felt. 

No momentum so far

The national and international communities have shied away from the eyewear issue in part because their rules have to be acceptable for a range of age and skill levels, including kids just starting out. So while those governing bodies might not be opposed to eyewear, it could be impractical for them to require it for their constituents.

Steve Horgan, the National Umpire and Technical Manager for USA Field Hockey, who also serves as the NCAA secretary-rules editor, said he doesn’t sense any momentum from college coaches or national and international constituents to follow the high school lead. He said the protection gives players a “false sense of security” that leads to more aggressive play, and the resulting lack of peripheral vision actually puts players more at risk of head injuries in general.

“With the eyewear, we’re seeing kids playing more upright rather than lower to the ground the way the game is supposed to be played,” Horgan said.

Yale head coach Pam Stuper said coaches’ concerns range from a negative impact on player safety to an effect on skill level. She said the false sense of security to which Horgan eluded likely will lead to an increase in concussions, as might the effect of eyewear on a player’s peripheral vision. 

“Try this yourself,” said Stuper, who’s also a member of the Division I Field Hockey Committee. “Put your pointer finger horizontally right below your eyes, as the lower bar of a goggle would be, and then try to look down. If you’re trying to look at a ball that’s just in front of your feet, you can’t see it. So what do you do? You have to tilt your head farther down, which pulls your vision more narrowly down to the ground.”

The infringement on peripheral vision impacts a player’s ability to make good decisions as a ball carrier, Stuper said, which in turn will affect skill level, since kids are taught to keep their head up when they carry the ball. 

“National team players are talented enough so that they don’t have to focus on the ball when they’re carrying it, but those in high school and college need to pay attention to the ball, which means they need to have split vision,” said Stuper. “And they can’t if their head is down on the ball.”

Division III Field Hockey Committee member Brenda Meese has similar concerns.

“It’s more about the integrity of the game and the safety of the players,” said the head coach and assistant AD at Wooster. “Part of that is being able to see – you need not only your peripheral vision to the sides but also up and down. Most of the goggles made don’t seem to accommodate that.”

Similarly, Division II committee chair Stacey Gaudette cited safety as a primary concern since the loss of peripheral vision would necessitate a change in skill. “The loss of vertical peripheral vision and the speed at which the game is played is a combination that coaches are concerned will lead to more injuries,” said the head coach at Mercyhurst. “As a part of the international community, we want our skills to continually improve, but adding a barrier to the sight of the ball will hinder that skill advancement.”

Rules already allow players in NCAA competition to wear protective eyewear if they choose, either to address a medical condition or because they just want to. Few do so, however. Stuper and Meese both pointed out that at the recent USA Field Hockey festival in November, only a few of the hundreds of high school players there donned the eyewear, even after having played with them all season.

“Nobody wants them,” Stuper said. “It has nothing to do with whether they don’t look ‘cool,’ it’s that kids can’t see with them on.”

Bridging the constituencies

Stuper and Meese acknowledged that the pushback from coaches and others could sound like they’re not interested in player safety. Quite the contrary, they say. They’re worried more about the damage that goggles can do to the player wearing them – and to other players, too. The caged goggles in fact are specifically not allowed in NCAA or international play, even for players who need to protect a medical condition. Meese said she wouldn’t be so opposed to mandatory eyewear if there was a product on the market that could be protective without impairing vision.

That’s partly why the competitive-safeguards committee adjusted its recommendation from next season to “sometime in the near future.” The change came after members saw preliminary testing results showing some of the wire-caged and polycarbonate models weren’t always effective in protection against the velocity of the ball at the highest end of the ASTM standard, which might be more realistic to the college level of play.

“There are a lot of products on the market that meet ASTM standards,” Anderson said. “We’ve asked for more testing on those products to see if they would be adequate for NCAA play.”

Anderson also said the committee heard presentations indicating a “wide variety of mechanical characteristics” of field hockey balls, especially at different velocities, which he said dramatically affects testing. Anderson said it’s tough to set a standard for eyewear when there’s no standard for the ball.

To gain more clarity on the matter, Anderson said the competitive-safeguards committee will work to:

  • Confirm a standard ball velocity for the collegiate game;
  • Settle on a field hockey ball standard that describes the mechanical properties and performance criteria of the ball so that it is consistent for testing and playing purposes;
  • Refine the ball velocity requirements in the ASTM standard; and 
  • Confirm that the products on the market meet these new demands for the sport at the collegiate level.

“We need to make sure we have enough information on which we can recommend changes that make a positive difference for student-athletes who play the game,” Anderson said. “We’re aware that many field hockey constituents are not interested in requiring eyewear, so we decided that based on the data and feedback we currently have, the best approach was to hold on our recommendation to require eyewear until we have more testing results.”

But the delay doesn’t mean that the competitive-safeguards committee might be inclined to back away from its recommendation to require eyewear. 

The coaches will get a chance to talk more about the issue soon. The annual convention of the National Field Hockey Coaches Association is Jan. 12-15 in Philadelphia, and NCAA officials will be there to gather feedback. Also, all three NCAA field hockey committees have their annual meetings this month.

“People are quite opposed right now,” said Stuper. “It’s causing an uproar, not just because of the eyewear itself but also because there is a general feeling that the people making these recommendations do not understand our sport.”

Anderson acknowledged at least the perceived gap between constituents who believe they understand the way the game should be played and a group that has expertise in keeping those players safe. He said that’s partly why the group is seeking to understand the issue more clearly.

He said since the NCAA doesn’t create standards for protective equipment, sports have to rely on external bodies like the American Society for Testing and Materials for guidance. But whether those standards are appropriate for collegiate play is worth exploring, Anderson said.

“For us, asking those questions is the appropriate next step,” he said. “That’s really the ‘middle ground’ between the field hockey people and the health and safety people, because right now, that ASTM standard is what the field hockey community and the scientific community have to work with – that’s the merge right now with the two groups.”