In November 2018 Thierry Weil, the then newly appointed CEO of the FIH, surprised the world of hockey. He announced the Games of Paris 2024 would be played on a surface that did not need any water. His main message was hockey can be played on any surface. A message I support with all of my heart and is a key factor, I believe, in growing the sport worldwide.
That being said… topsport needs consistency and a major benefit from our water-based pitches, besides the speed and quality of play on it, it also allows for similar & safe circumstances in most climates!
In our column from June 2019 we raised our doubts, even when we applauded the initiative in itself. Paris 2024 never was a realistic target. Almost all experts doubted any replacement for our water-based turf would be ready for topsport in 2024 if we want similar playing conditions. When the Covid pandemic slowed down development it became clear to all. However, big strides were made in reducing the water we need on the turf. So we’re heading in the right direction. When it became clear Paris 2024 would still be played on water, the FIH needed to set new goals and, again without much relevant concertation, the FIH decided on the world cup in 2026 as the new goal for a dry artificial pitch. Or rather non-irrigated. Making Paris 2024 the last major event on a water-based turf.
New goal: World Cup 2026!
Following the assignment of the new world cup for 2026 to both the Netherlands and Belgium, the FIH decided this event would be the first for non-irrigated fields. Much to the surprise (again) of most involved. When we talked to players, coaches, high performance directors and other relevant experts most were and are very sceptical. I think all of us agree it is the way forward. Water is a scarce resource and we need to find a solution. But if the timeline for this is a unilateral decision made by administrators, without involving relevant stakeholders, we imagine it could be problematic. So we invited some experts for an open and transparent panel talk about the move towards dry artificial grass for hockey.
Panel talk about dry artificial grass for hockey
In February of 2023 these experts joined me in a panel talk about the move towards a non-irrigated surface for hockey. Below this column or on Youtube you’ll find the full and unedited video of this panel talk. Our panel featured the following experts:
- Jeroen Hertzberger 🇳🇱, international player
- Adam Commens 🇦🇺 🇧🇪, former international player & coach – now high performance director for Hockey Belgium
- Stephen Butler 🇮🇪, former international player & co-founder Osaka (stick & shoe brand)
- Colin Young 🇬🇧, global R&D director for Tencate Grass
- Alastair Cox 🇬🇧, Facilities & Quality Programme Manager for the FIH
For the purpose of this column I selected a few clips about player welfare, fair sportsmanship, how much time players & coaches need and a realistic possible timing as suggested.
Jeroen Hertzberger: “I don’t see it happening before 2026”
“So the speed has been going up and down in the last 20 years. So that’s something I don’t worry too much about. However, the safety, yeah that’s the big one here. Because there are even players now that are covering their knees with tights, because even with the water based pitches, sometimes skin injuries is is a thing. And what we actually want to see in our game is we want to see diving tackles. We want to see players diving to the second post and getting on their stomach and getting on their knees. And because that’s the sensation of the sport.” – Jeroen Hertzberger
“And then there’s another thing that jumped into my mind is that fair play is also… if you look at performance everyone needs to be able to prepare for a World Cup or an Olympics or a Pro League or whatever in the same way.” – Jeroen Hertzberger
“I don’t even see it happening before 2026 because it simply wouldn’t be fair for all the countries that need to prepare for these big tournaments, because they all need to have access to these pitches.” – Jeroen Hertzberger
Jeroen Hertzberger: “Don’t use Hockey 5s for testing”
“From a player point of view usually when it comes to new pitches and sometimes you arrive at a tournament just speaking from experience and you’re not sure how new the pitch is you’re not sure if the field is going to be bouncy. You don’t know if it’s going to be this or that.
And usually our conclusion is always the same is that small play, because you gave the example of fives… In small areas, you’re not gonna notice the difference as much when it comes to how a field is played compared to the long distances.
So, usually you recognize the big difference between, let’s say, a good and a bad pitch. When you’re looking at the longer distance of play. So I talk about long passing, talking about long aerials, talking about long one-on-ones where you actually reach a high speed of above 25 kilometers per hour running and then hitting the brakes and then having to make an inside break, a 90 degrees turn.
That’s usually something that you don’t get… You don’t get these speeds and distances and you don’t get this momentum of bodies playing in small areas like for example, fives. Just like in indoor hockey, you don’t get these long distance speeds. You don’t get the , the high sprint meters.
I worry a little bit because when you want to test a field, you can actually only test if you have a proper size pitch and you can actually play 11 on 11 to see how things work out.
That, that’s the main thing for me. I just wanted to add on because usually it’s not the stuff that happens in the D and it probably won’t be the penalty corner either. Cause these things, you find a way to, to make it happen. But it’s the long stuff physically and technically that, that will be influenced most by a change in surface.” – Jeroen Hertzberger
Adam Commens: “I want some guarantees”
“If we were having a rise in injuries, would we just simply push on and say, no, we’ve made the decision or would we have a discussion with the nations that are involved in these tournaments.” – Adam Commens
“I’d want some guarantees that our athletes and teams are gonna be consulted in terms of do they feel that these surfaces are safe for athletes at the major events.” – Adam Commens
Stephen Butler: shoes will need 2 years
“You’ll need a shoe that does two things.That can react to different conditions. Because potentially it will be a dry field, potentially of it rains it will be a wet field.” – Stephen Butler (Osaka)
“We want to make the transition as minimal as possible. (…) But there still will be some iterations that are needed. We don’t want it to be too much grip, because that will be dangerous. Also we don’t want the grip to be too low when it’s wet, because otherwise players are goung to be falling over all the time. (…) The feedback so far is the majority footwear has been designed to be thought of and included within the system, but inevitably when players get onto a full size field and get a bit more dynamic, we might identify some changes there that are needed and any advice on footwear or other equipment will be very welcome.” – Colin Young (Tencate Grass)
“We just need to indeed get some time on the field. I think there’s enough technology now in our product development that we’ll be able to find something that will be able to work under both conditions. (…) It does take time, but to be honest, it’s very difficult to say.
You get actually, what Jeroen said was in my mind as well, with a full-on test on a full-on pitch, because until you get to that phase and then you get through your first two prototyping stages. Then you can really start with the opening molds and getting the product cycle running. The minimum is really 18 months and it normally takes us 24 months for a new product.” – Stephen Butler (Osaka)
“We fully accept that people are not gonna convert their main stadium field or the number one field to new technology. That that’s reasonable. But we will need to arrange for players from the Dutch squad, the Belgian squad, the Australian squad, whoever it may be, to go to these venues to play on them.
And we will need the assistance of the national associations, the high performance coaches here, Adam and his colleagues around the world to ensure that happens. Because clearly their expectation is gonna be very different to a typical community player and we need that high level feedback.” – Alastair Cox (FIH)
Scenario 1: the dream scenario
Most likely top players and teams will start testing these new prototype non-irrigated fields only towards the end of 2024 to avoid possible injuries and issues in the lead up to the Paris Games in the summer of 2024. That means if (and that’s a big IF) all goes well and nothing major will have to be adapted, in a best case scenario national associations could start using the first new generation artificial surfaces in 2024 and maybe, just maybe, the 2024-2025 season could be the first to be used for some real international testing of the new surface.
Scenario 2: when reality sets in
A more likely scenario, at least in my opinion, would be one where following the first full-on tests at the end of 2024 they will need some adaptations that might set us back in time. Either in gear (shoes) or the synthetic fields themselves. Meaning serious competitive testing during Pro League will start in the 2025-2026 season. And we might have something that actually works and is safe just before the LA 2028 Games. Which in my opinion should be the real goal for the amazing ambition of a full transition to a non-irrigated hockey field.
I understand there is value in pushing for an earlier deadline in getting things done. But as Adam Commens rightfully mentioned the players, coaches and NA’s do need a guarantee that things can be water-based if the players do not feel safe performing at the highest level and speed we’ve come to expect from them.