How to evolve “vision” in hockey, by Andreu Enrich

The following post was written by Andreu Enrich. Andreu is a former Spanish National Team player and actual coach of Athletic Terrassa women’s team. He is FIH Level 4 Coach and a good friend of us, always looking how to take hockey to the next level and sharing information with the rest!

The present text aims to approach the crucial role of “vision” in team sports, in our case in field hockey where besides the opponent there is an implement to manage. Hockey is technically a very demanding sport that requires complex motor skills to dominate the ball, and naturally, that requires a lot of visual attention from the practitioner.

There’s a lot written about vision in sports. I just want to name the most important vision qualities that through a good training program can be improved, all of them with good returns in our hockey performance: contrast sensitivity, dynamic visual acuity, monocular and binocular vision (non-dominant eye), visual fusion flexibility, perception of depth, manual-eye coordination, improvements in visual anticipation, reaction time, peripheral vision and kinesthetic control. Among others. As we can see, vision is a broad field of work!

However, the goal of this text is not to summarize some of the training practices that I use to practise these particular vision qualities. No. What I want here is to highlight what, from my point of view, represents the most important “turn” if we talk about vision in field hockey.

There is a consensus among coaches about the importance of vision in field hockey. Coaches from all over the world are constantly demanding “scanning” for their players. To scan means to know about your context. “Blind” players won’t be able to play well cause they don’t have any perception to feed their decision-making process.

The problem is that we are wrong in the way we approach this “scanning” technique. What we do is to teach the players that while carrying the ball, they must switch between head-up in order to see the environment and head down in order to control the ball. The attention goes sequentially from the ball to the context. The ocular movements used here are called “saccadic movements”. The saccadic movements are used to detect objects that are outside our central vision. When we detect an object through our peripheral vision, then we move our head and eyes and we put ourselves in a position where that object can be detected through our central vision. The problem of using saccadic movements in field hockey is the vertical angle between the ball (head-down) and the context (head-up). A big vertical angle is the worst scenario for the saccadic movements. Under these circumstances, the precision of these movements become poorer. (picture 1st player)

Beyond the poor rendiment of saccadic movements. The sequential pattern of “head-up/head-down” also difficult the capacity to make good decisions while playing. The justification is simple: if I’m “open” to my teammates intermittently, then the odds to connect are reduced, cause an eventual connexion between the passer and receiver would only take place when my open vision matches the lead of my teammate.

Other coaches are teaching something bit different to players: how to carry the ball in front of the body so the player can put the attention to the ball but at the same time, through peripheral vision, detect part of the environment. Also wrong. The problem with this technique is the nature of peripheral vision, very poor in chromatic sensitivity and visual acuity. However, the peripheral vision is super sensitive to movement detection, but if we detect something we will have to realize a saccadic movement to know what exactly it is, and then we face again the same problem that we had two paragraphs ago. (picture 2nd player)

The authentic revolution takes place when the player becomes able to carry the ball without the need to see it. The revolution is to keep the control of the ball while feeling the ball in our stick. The Copernican turn is to trust in our kinesthesis instead of in our eyes. Kinesthesis is the consciousness of our body position and our movements. If we feel the ball, we can fully employ our vision resources in the environment.

Of course, that motor skill requires time and practise. Best players do it quite often (mixing this kinesthetic control with peripheral vision and saccadic movements). But one thing is clearly clear: the more time we can keep our vision open and the ball under control, better tactical decisions we will be able to take. The player will feel that is out there, instead of here where the ball is placed. Passing lines will be drawn in real-time, and the connexion between receiver and passer will become subtle and fine. With your head-up, you become an autonomous subject, an artist, an ubermensch inside the field.

As a player I’ve learned this technique at the age of 28 years old, and only by myself, practising before or after training. I never had any coach that pointed out the importance of this skill. I remember watching Iniesta carrying and passing the ball with the head-up all the time. Same phenomena in NBA playmakers. Yes, feet and hands are part of your body, from a kinesthetic point of view that is easier to manage. But with enough practice, an implement like a hockey stick can become an extension of your body. And through deliberate practice, I became able to carry, change the direction, turn, stop and accelerate without any need to see the ball (not even through peripheral vision). Just feeling it. Now I teach how to do it. (picture 3rd player you see Roc Oliva with the ball under control without seeing it).

The more we feel the ball, the more we can see the field. The more we see the field, the better decision we can take. The better decisions we take, the better players we become. And the better players you create, the better coach you are.

Thanks, especially to the biggest master of field hockey photography: Alann Hockey, for this perfect ad-hoc composition.

Andreu Enrich

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