On 6 May, 24-year-old Lizzie Watkins was tragically killed when a hockey ball hit her in the head during a game at the Perth Hockey Stadium. Watkins was a first grade player with the North Coast Raiders and competed alongside a number of current and former Olympic representatives. The accident occurred when the ball deflected as Watkins rushed to make a tackle and struck her in the back of the head. After collapsing on the field she was revived but died on her way to hospital. Coach, Colin Brandis described the incident to the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘fairly innocuous’, something ‘which occurs 100 times each game.’  It was therefore a huge shock to the hockey community that it resulted in a fatality.

Condolences have been expressed publicly to the Watkins family by the Australian men’s hockey team, the Kookaburras and the North Coast Raiders President, Craig Vallipuram.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chief Executive of Hockey Western Australia, Kevin Knapp has said that an investigation into the incident will take place.

Tragic accidents such as this remind us of the inherent risks in some high-level sports. In all sports, competitor safety is paramount and generally protected by the rules of competition.

The International Hockey Federation (IHF) recommends the use of personal protective equipment as part of their Game Rules.  These are then adapted by the national and state hockey associations for national, state, provincial and local competitions to suit their own grades. Under the IHF Rules it is recommended that:

  • field players may wear gloves for protection provided they do not increase the natural size of the hands significantly
  • field players may wear shin, ankle and mouth protection
  • field players (for medical reasons only) can wear a smooth transparent, white or otherwise single coloured face mask which closely fits the face, soft protective head-covering or eye protection
  • field players  may wear a smooth transparent, white but otherwise single coloured face mask which closely fits the face when defending a penalty
  • goalkeepers are required to wear headgear, leg guards and kickers
  • goal keepers may wear body, upper arm, elbow, forearm, hand, thigh and knee protectors

However, field players may not wear protective head gear in circumstances other than those specified above.

Unfortunately, in inherently risky sports the implementation of most mitigation controls rarely eliminates the risk altogether. It is possible that protective headgear may have assisted in the incident described earlier however given the apparent rare nature of this risk it is difficult to determine whether any changes to the game rules may be required.

In incidents of this nature, it is important to not only investigate the incident thoroughly but to also undertake a rigorous follow up risk assessment to establish whether indeed the risk of serious injury from ball strike is higher than this isolated incident suggests.