Ensuring quality in hockey – Q&A with the FIH’s Alastair Cox

19th May 2022

As the world’s first – and longest serving – FIH Certified Field Builder, we’re proud to be recognised by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) for our expertise in hockey pitch construction.

But what exactly does it mean to be an FIH Certified Field Builder, and why is the FIH Quality Programme important? We put these questions and more to Alastair Cox, Facilities and Quality Programme Manager at the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

Alastair kindly visited us at our newly completed hockey facility at Wyndley Leisure centre earlier this year so we could pick his brains on the FIH quality programme. The project included the conversion of an existing sand-dressed hockey pitch into a water-based hockey pitch, constructed and tested to FIH Category 2 (formally known as ‘Global’) Certified status for elite play.

Alongside this, we constructed a new Gen 2 multi-sport pitch for training and small-sided sport.

Hi Alastair, thanks for talking with us! For those who don’t know, what is the FIH?

The International Hockey Federation (FIH) are the international governing body for hockey, and we have responsibility for the sport at a global level. That responsibility includes setting the rules of the game and promoting the game. We also organise and host major international tournaments including the Olympic Games and the FIH World Cup, and assist with multi-sports games such as the Commonwealth Games.

Alastair Cox, FIH Facilities and Quality Programme Manager
FIH Category 2 (Global) Certified Hockey Field at Wyndley Leisure Centre

What exactly is the FIH Quality Programme?

The FIH Quality Programme is a set of standards defining: what is a good hockey surface, what is a good hockey field, and also an endorsement of the companies producing the surfaces. So people can select with confidence that they’re buying proven products from proven suppliers.

Hockey was the first sport to recognise the benefit of synthetic turf surfaces, with the first international hockey tournament played on synthetic turf at the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976. The sport recognised the potential of the surfacing but also recognised the need to be certain that the turf evolved in a way that suited the needs of hockey, so the FIH wanted to control the way the surfaces were used for the sport and ensure that the facilities and surfaces are of good quality, in terms of durability etc., because it’s a major investment for people to build a hockey field.


Can you tell us about the FIH Certified Field Builder programme?

We recognise that having good quality hockey surfaces is very important to people. But you can have the best surface in the world – if it’s badly installed, or it’s installed onto a bad base construction – you end up with a bad field. We wanted to provide reassurance again to people investing in hockey that the contractors they were employing had a proven ability to build good quality hockey fields.

So the Certified Field Builder programme was introduced in 2015 and it defines the criteria that we expect contractors building fields to be able to achieve. To have the benefit of being certified by the FIH, the criteria for field builders is primarily a proven ability to build hockey fields. We periodically review our standards as the sport evolves or the needs of the sport change or based on regulatory environmental issues – which are increasingly becoming more relevant to the market.

To retain field builder status you have to be able to demonstrate on an annual basis that you’re still able to build fields that meet the standards applicable today. Just because you could build fields 5-10 years ago doesn’t mean you’re competent to build them today. So for us, it’s about verifying periodically that the companies are still achieving the standards that are enforced today.


What’s the benefit of using an FIH Certified Field Builder?

We believe that employing certified field builders to design and build the fields is the best way of ensuring you get a good field at the end of the process. A hockey field is a major capital investment – it’s more demanding and challenging than building some other forms of synthetic turf field, as the tolerances that hockey requires are much tighter than sports like football or rugby.

60-70% of the cost of a hockey field is below the surface, so if you don’t get the construction of the base and the drainage system correct, you’re going to end up with a facility that is not going to meet your long-term expectations.

Is there a risk when building a hockey pitch without one?

Unfortunately, so many people have gone for lower cost proposals and it might work initially, but when they come to resurface the field, suddenly you may find it’s not a question of just changing the carpet, it’s a question of doing a lot more. So you may save some money today but spend a lot more money in the future – and inevitably the field will have deteriorated over that initial period and the playing expectations and qualities will have deteriorated.

There’s a safety concern if the base of a hockey field is incorrectly designed and built – and that needs to be specific to the ground conditions and the climate on site. Every site is different, and just because you build a field a certain way in one location, three miles down the road the ground conditions could be totally different, and you would have to design the base differently, so it is a major piece of civil engineering.

We have a small ball travelling very quickly predominantly across the surface so any imperfections in the field affect the way the game is played and worst case it becomes a safety issue. The last thing you want is a ball lifting from the surface that’s travelling at speed, striking a player and causing an injury. But even if it’s just adversely affecting performance that is reducing the desirability of a facility therefore your investment is not maximizing its potential.


What about turf systems? Tell us about FIH Preferred Producers and Manufacturers

The core philosophy of the FIH Quality Programme is ensuring quality, so the first stage of that is ensuring that the synthetic turf surface meets our standards. Products are manufactured and independently tested for over 30 different characteristics, ensuring they are in accordance with those standards.

We also look at the calibre of the manufacturing companies to make sure that they have robust quality control procedures in place, and that they comply with all relevant legislation. We want to be certain that only the best quality manufacturers – producing the best quality products – are able to join the FIH quality program.


What’s the benefit of using turf from an FIH Preferred Producer?

We will not certify a field if it hasn’t got hockey turf that has been approved by the FIH.  Part of our testing process is to assess the durability of the product. We want certainty that it’s going to continue to perform adequately throughout its life, typically 8-10 years.

We do lots of simulated ageing in the laboratory. We do wear testing, we do artificial weathering to make sure the quality is suitable. So you’ve got a product that has got proven credentials in terms of longevity, you’ve had your field built by a certified field builder who knows what they’re doing so – providing you are using the field correctly and maintaining it correctly, which is very important, you should then be able to have a field tested for certification with confidence.


FIH Global Category 2 water-based hockey pitch at Warwick University
FIH National Category 3 sand-dressed hockey pitch at Royal Holloway University

Moving on from builders and turf producers, what is FIH Field Certification?

One part of the quality program is the certification of fields on completion. Certification is in place to verify that the field has been built to the right standards – it meets our quality levels and it’s fit for purpose. We have different categories depending on the level of play and the type of surfacing so the requirements for a field such as this one at Wyndley Leisure Centre – which is intended for elite-level competition – are the most demanding, if it’s a community field that’d be slightly different.

Hockey is possibly different to some other sports in that we want consistency on field, so we want a field in Birmingham to be the same as a field in Argentina, Australia, or India, so the players can move around the world with the confidence they’re going to have a facility or a field that is familiar to them.


What are the FIH categories of hockey turf certification?

We have a different category of certification for hockey turfs and hockey fields, so for the surfaces, as the top end we have what we call our:

Global category, which at the moment is a non-filled short pile carpet that requires watering. We have aspirations to move away from water in the short to medium-term future, but these are surfaces predominantly intended for the high end of the game so international matches and national leagues.

National our second category, are sand-dressed surfaces that still provide very good hockey playing surfaces and when they’re damp or wet are almost as good as a global surface. We have significantly more sand-dressed fields than water-based fields in the UK.

Below this level, we start getting into:

Multi-sport applications. The FIH have recognised that not everybody can justify building a sports field exclusively for hockey, so they need to be able to share the facility with other sports. We have different subcategories here. Some surfaces are biased towards sports like tennis and netball, with others towards football, so the consumer can choose which is the most appropriate for them while still having some certainty that it’s good for the level of hockey that they’re catering for.


What about FIH hockey field certification?

Field certification relates to the quality of the actual field.

Category One are built in international stadia – there are very few of those around the world for obvious reasons!

Category Two the majority of fields in the world at the higher elite level are category two, which again, is what this field we’re standing in today (Wyndley Leisure Centre) is.

Category 3 fields are sand-dressed hockey pitches.

Category 4 are hockey friendly surfaces, where hockey is the primary sport with other sports as a secondary use.

Category 5 surfaces are predominantly designed for football but on which very basic level hockey can be played.

This certification allows competition organisers to specify what level of field they want for their competition or league. So England Hockey can set a policy for what they want in their competitions as an example.


How long does certification last?

When a field is tested is it normally certified for three years from the date of the first test. It can then be retested after this, and recertification is valid for a further two years. So it’s a two-year cycle thereafter because we’re aware that the quality of the field will deteriorate over time and we need to be certain that when tested, the field will be fit for purpose by the end of the certification period as well as at the beginning.


What’s the benefit of having a hockey field-tested for FIH certification?

From a field owner’s perspective, certification allows them to demonstrate that their investment has been spent wisely – and that’s often a condition of funding agencies, certainly in the UK. Equally, from a liability perspective they can demonstrate they have built a field it meets FIH standards – it’s fit for purpose so if, god forbid, there is an accident and a player is injured it’s not down to the surface it’s a sporting injury, not a defective facility.

At the higher levels, it will allow you to compete in competitions – because some of the competition regulations will say you have to have a field of a certain quality standard. It will also allow you to promote the field to international teams to come and compete and play in tournaments on your facility.

If nothing else it’s a good marketing tool! It’s a field that has been independently verified as suitable for hockey. It’s not the facility owner saying it, it’s the International Hockey Federation – these are independent tests undertaken by an FIH Accredited laboratory, they have deemed the field to have met the standards required, the FIH have then reviewed all of the data and confirmed that the field is worthy of FIH endorsement.


Thank to Alastair for taking the time to do this interview with us and visiting our new facility in Birmingham.

We are proud to support the FIH Quality Programme as an FIH Certified Field Builder, and through our partnership with FIH Preferred Producers Fieldturf.

The longest-serving FIH Certified Field Builder

S&C Slatter are experienced in the construction of sand-dressed, water-based and sand-filled synthetic hockey pitches, to FIH Multi-Sport, National and Global performance standards.

With in-house expertise across design, planning, construction and maintenance, get in touch now to discuss your needs.

Call 01635 34521or email info@sandcslatter.com