Field hockey is a team sport played by both men and women, with major international tournaments including the Champions Trophy (CT) and the Olympic games. In Australia, the Australian Hockey League (AHL) is the highest standard of domestic competition and provides a pathway to international representation. The extent to which the activity profiles in the AHL prepare players to make a successful transition to international competition is not known.
Time–motion analysis provides valuable information regarding the activity profile of players within a team sport (3,16,23), fatigue patterns during matches (2,22,28), and/or the activity of different levels of competition (5,21,27). However, in comparison with other team sports, there have been relatively few attempts to determine the activity profile of high-level field hockey (9,18,19,29,30). Manual video-based time–motion analysis demonstrated that international male field hockey players spend most of a match exercising at lower speeds (ie standing, walking, jogging), with a small proportion of time (∼5.6%) spent at higher speeds (striding and sprinting) and an occasional bout of repeated sprint exercise (29). Additionally, elite hockey players increase the time spent standing and reduce the time spent jogging from game 1 to game 3 in an international hockey tournament, indicative of fatigue (30). However, although these studies provide useful information on some of the physical requirements of international field hockey, no studies have investigated the activity demands of national level competition or compared these with the top-level international competition. Further, it is possible the game demands have changed in the 5–6 years since these studies were completed.
As with soccer, field hockey categorizes players into 3 distinct positional groups (strikers, midfielders, and defenders). Currently, no studies have described the specific physical requirements of positional groups within male international-level or national-level field hockey. Understanding the activity profile necessary for success in field hockey players according to their positional role during competitive matches (ie, distance covered and intensity) is necessary to develop sport-specific training protocols. Additionally, the amount of high-speed running (HSR) is an important discriminator between elite and subelite team sport athletes (22). To date, however, no studies have investigated differences in HSR between playing positions, competition levels, or during each half in male field hockey.
Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine several aspects of elite field hockey running performance. The 3 specific aims of this study were to determine the following: (1) the activity profile of national and international field hockey competitions, specifically the influence of competition level on HSR; (2) if playing position within a level of competition influences the activity profile; and (3) if the movement characteristics are different between each half of a match.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
The activity profile of national-level and international-level competitions were examined using global positioning system (GPS) technology. Specifically, the level of competition, playing position, and differences existing between the first and second half were investigated. Players were separated into 3 distinct positional groups (strikers, midfielders, and defenders) for positional comparison. An understanding of the positional requirements during tournament play is important for monitoring performance and effectively planning player preparation programs.
Sixteen national-level field hockey players [mean (±SD) age, stature, and body mass: 22 ± 4 y, 178 ± 8 cm, and 78 ± 9 kg, respectively] were assessed although competing in the 2008 AHL. To evaluate international competition, 16 male field hockey players [mean (±SD) age, stature, and body mass: 27 ± 4 y, 179 ± 5 cm, and 77 ± 5 kg, respectively] from the Australian men's field hockey team were investigated although competing in the 2009 CT. Only 1 player competed in both tournaments. Goalkeepers were excluded from this study. This study conformed to the National Health and Medical Research Council's Statement on Human Experimentation. All athletes gave informed consent after full disclosure of procedures.
Endurance performance was measured using the multistage fitness test (MSFT), whereby subjects run back and forth on a 20 m course and touch the 20 m line; at the same time, a sound signal is emitted from a prerecorded tape (26). The intraclass correlation coefficient for test-retest reliability and typical error of measurement for the MSFT were 0.93 and 3.5%, respectively (17).
Study Design and Procedures
Time-motion analyses were conducted during the national-level AHL (6 round matches followed by a semifinal and final) and the international-level CT (5 round matches and a final). During each match, 16 players each wore a GPS unit (MinimaxX, Team 2.5, Catapult Innovations, Scoresby, Australia) in a custom pocket in the player uniform located between the scapulae. The antennas of each unit were exposed to allow a clear satellite reception. The number of satellites during data collection for the AHL and CT competition were 8.5 ± 0.7 and 8.3 ± 0.6, respectively. The mean horizontal dilution of precision, during data collection was 1.50 ± 0.26 and 1.25 ± 0.16 for AHL and CT competition, respectively. A sample rate of 5 Hz was used for data collection. To limit error, each player wore the same unit for the duration of the competition. The following parameters were assessed for both national-level (AHL) and international-level competitions (CT): total distance (TD), also expressed in meters covered per minute (m·min−1), HSR; (running speed >4.17 m·s−1) distance, and lower speed activity (LSA; 0.10–4.17 m·s−1). These measures have demonstrated acceptable levels of reliability for assessing team sport activity demands using GPS (13).
The distances from each field position, not the individual players, were used to describe the positional activity profile (29,30). For example, when several players played in 1 position, the activity profile was recreated by combining data from each substitute playing in that position. The match data was then divided into activity profile for each half of each match in both competitions.
Descriptive data for both competitions is presented as mean ± SD. All other variables were log transformed to reduce bias because of nonuniformity of error and analyzed using the effect size (ES) statistic with 90% confidence intervals (CIs) and percent difference to determine the magnitude of effects using a custom spreadsheet (11). Mean differences in MSFT performance between competition levels and activity demands (TD, m·min−1, HSR, LSA) between positions, competition levels, and halves were assessed using a customized spreadsheet (11). Differences were classified as substantial when there was a ≥75% likelihood of the effect being equal to or greater than 0.2 and classified as small 0.2–0.6; moderate 0.6–1.2; large 1.2–2.0; and very large 2.0–4.0 (6). Effects with less certainty were classified as trivial and where the ±90% CI of the ES crossed the boundaries of ES −0.2 and 0.2, the effect was reported as unclear. This statistical approach was utilized to identify meaningful differences although accounting for the precision of measurement through CIs.
Players competing in international competition had a 10.1% greater MSFT performance than those competing at the national level (2859 ± 223 vs. 2568 ± 194 m, ES = 1.35). The TD travelled independent of positional groups throughout the 70 minutes of play was 9776 ± 720 m and 8589 ± 623 m for CT and AHL matches, respectively. International players performed 42.0% more HSR (2294 ± 433 vs. 1652 ± 416 m; ES = 1.45) and 7.6% more LSA (7441 ± 511 vs. 6905 ± 447 m, ES = 1.45) than national players. During CT, midfielders had greater HSR distance, but similar LSA distance compared with strikers (Table 1). Defenders performed substantially less HSR than strikers (Table 1). Moreover, the HSR distance differed markedly between the 3 positions, with defenders covering the least HSR (1728 ± 201 m).
Within the AHL, there were no differences between strikers and midfielders for TD or m·min−1. However, the strikers completed more HSR (striker: 1896 ± 368 m; midfield 1778 ± 387 m), but there was little variation in LSA distances. Similar to the CT, the AHL defenders covered less distance in all variables in comparison with the strikers and midfielders, (Table 1). Strikers and midfielders had greater HSR during AHL than defenders (Table 1). In contrast to CT, AHL midfielders covered more HSR than strikers (10.1 ± 7.4%). In general, CT had greater movement demands than AHL (Table 2). However, the greatest difference between competition levels was observed in HSR with AHL strikers, midfielders, and defenders performing less HSR than players competing in the same positions in CT.
The TD covered decreased in the second halves across all positions in both the CT (6.1 to 7.5%) and the AHL (2.4 to 4.7%; Table 2). In CT, the strikers also demonstrated a 6% reduction in LSA in the second half. In contrast, the strikers in AHL demonstrated moderate changes in time–motion variables. Midfielders during both levels of competition showed decreases in distances across all variables from the first to second half. Similarly, the defenders in both the CT and the AHL showed decreases in TD, m·min−1 and LSA but maintained the ability to perform HSR between the first and second halves (Table 3).
The main finding of this study was that international players completed more HSR across all positions than players at an elite national level. In both competitions, midfielders and strikers performed more HSR than defenders, and the activity demands of players decreased in the second half.
The present study demonstrated that international players covered a greater TD and HSR distance than the national-level competition. Our hockey results agree with some (1,20,21) but not all previous studies (4) that have reported greater TD in higher level soccer competition. Elite Australian football also has higher TD and number of high intensity efforts than subelite competition (5). However, care must be taken in comparing data between these sports as each have different rules (ie, field size, match duration, player substitution, and rotation), and also different match analysis methods have been used (eg GPS, semiautomated computerized systems and manual video–based analysis). Nonetheless, it seems that international field hockey has greater physical demands than the AHL. These findings should be taken into account when planning to use AHL to prepare players for future international competition.
In support of recent research (1,21) reporting differences in HSR profiles between international and elite domestic soccer players, we also found that international field hockey competition has greater HSR demands than national-level competition. There are several possible explanations for the differences in HSR between competitions. The most likely explanation in this study is the greater endurance capacity of the international players when compared with AHL players. Furthermore, as the aerobic fitness of soccer players increased, match running performance also improved (10,12). Indeed, a 10% increase in V[Combining Dot Above]o2max resulted in a 20% increase in match running distance in young elite players in one study (10). Similarly, a 7% increase in V[Combining Dot Above]o2max resulted in a 6% increase in TD and 18% increase in high intensity activity during soccer match play of elite juniors (12). Interestingly, the magnitude of change in aerobic fitness reported in these previous training studies is similar to the difference between the international and national players' aerobic capacity in this study.
In addition to physical fitness, other factors may explain the differences in the activity demands between the different competition levels. For example, differences in tactics, technical abilities, or the quality of the opposition could affect the movement demands in field hockey. Several studies from professional soccer have shown these to be factors that affect the amount of HSR performed (4,24,25). The activity profiles could have been further influenced by motivational factors, such as the competitive importance placed on the game or the coaches' use of the continuous substitutions rule throughout the match (5,8,19,22). Many factors influence the differences in HSR between competitions. These should be taken into account when interpreting differences between positional demands in each competition level.
The present study confirmed that there were positional differences in activity profiles in both the CT and AHL. In the AHL, both the strikers and midfielders covered greater distance than defenders. In contrast, in women's AHL, midfielders and defenders covered the greater TDs than strikers (9). This difference may be because of the variations in the tactical requirements of specific positions and playing styles of teams. In CT, there were smaller differences in the TD between these playing positions. It is possible that these positional differences are because of the greater physical capacity or tactical strategies employed by the defenders at this level. Further research that investigates the relationship between technical/tactical skills and physical performance is required to elucidate these positional differences.
We also observed different positional requirements for HSR in both competitions. Specifically, midfielders and strikers covered more HSR than defenders regardless of competition level. This observation is in accordance with female AHL competition where midfielders covered more distance in HSR than strikers and defenders (9). Moreover, it was reported from one international field hockey match that midfielders and strikers also had a higher sprint frequency than defenders (29). However, direct comparison with these previous studies is difficult because of the different match analysis methods used. The present information may assist the physical preparation of talented national level players, enabling them to make a successful transition to international match play.
In the current study, the positional activity profile decreased in the second half for both competitions. These findings agree with soccer research that demonstrated a reduction in TD covered in the second half compared with the first (3,20). Others have shown decreased positional and movement demands during the second half of elite (7) and subelite Australian football matches (5). However, unlike the current study, no differences were found between the elite and subelite Australian football leagues (5). Additionally, the amount of HSR was significantly reduced in field hockey, (19) soccer (15,20) and rugby league (27) in the second half of matches. In comparison, the current study showed only small changes in HSR for midfielders (CT and AHL) and strikers (AHL) from the first to second halves, whereas defenders maintained the amount of HSR during the match in both competitions.
The use of distances from each field position, not the individual players, to describe the positional demands may have protected anticipated declines in HSR from the first to second halves. Also, the smaller decrease in HSR in the present study may be related to the unlimited substitution rule and positional and tactical requirements of defenders employed during both competitions. It is likely that the coaches manage player rotations in field hockey to maintain the exercise intensity of the team. Future studies should examine the relationship between player rotation and activity demands in field hockey.
In summary, the present study demonstrated that international competition substantially increases the positional movement of field hockey athletes, with greater HSR at the international level. Additionally, we also observed positional differences with midfielders and strikers performing more HSR than defenders. Finally, our results indicated that regardless of playing level, players who had reduced running were unable to match the demands in the second half of a match.
These results can be used by coaches to develop specific tactical and rotational strategies, which attempt to maintain the level of HSR throughout a match. Differences in HSR and aerobic capacity between levels highlight one area of improvement required by national level players. Although the activity profile of CT competition suggests a need for greater capacity development in international players, it is not clear from the current study whether the fitness levels of the players in examined here is because of the demands of international training and competition or was in fact present initially and acted as a discriminator for selection. It is possible that both natural selection and the training process have played a role. Players at the national level may require additional conditioning to achieve the higher aerobic capacity required if aspiring to international representation. The relatively large difference in HSR between the 2 levels shows the importance of being able to perform greater amounts of HSR and to recover from these actions throughout the game. Thus the training of elite field hockey players should focus on improving their ability to perform intense exercise and to recover rapidly from periods of high-intensity running. Finally, emphasis should be placed in the individualization of conditioning programs to address the specific demands of the different playing positions. Specific game-related training drills may be used to address this need. However, further research is required to confirm optimal strategies for preparing hockey players for the demands of international competition.
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