Underwater hockey players explain why it’s so easy to forget to breathe
"You're not really aware of how much you need to breathe."
In 2020, silent stands are emblematic of the coronavirus' apocalyptic impact on sports. But for underwater hockey player Laura Moss, silence isn't just the norm — it's a sign that's she's doing what she loves to do.
"When you put your head underwater there's kind of that moment of peace," she tells Inverse. "When all the sound just goes and it's really nice and quiet."
Underwater hockey, as it's called in the United Kingdom, or Octopush as it's occasionally called elsewhere, looks a lot like hockey with one crucial difference: You're playing under liquid water, not on top of frozen ice. Teams of six are tasked with pushing a puck through a goal, like regular hockey, but all the action is subaquatic.
Underwater hockey was first developed in the British coastal town of Southsea, mostly as a way for spearfisherman and divers to keep in shape when it became too cold to swim during winter months. Moss says that the game was shaped by Alan Blake, the founder of a local "sub-aqua" club who finalized the game over "innumerable cups of tea" in 1954.
Moss has played underwater hockey for 16 years, including a 2013 Worlds appearance. She's also the communications manager for the British Octopush Association. The sport retains it's spearfishing origins in some sense, Moss says. The weighted puck, which is pushed across the bottom of the pool, is called a squid — a holdover from the divers who were the sport's early adopters. The goal was once called a cuttle; it's now called a gulley.
Underwater hockey is more than cross-training for spearfishing hardos, says Moss. Though swimmers and other water sports fans turn to the sport out of interest or novelty, they soon realize it's far more complex than it looks.
"It's a massive mix of skills," Moss says. "We get quite a lot of swimmers coming into the sport, who think 'I'm a really fast swimmer, I'll be really good at underwater hockey' — but it doesn't always translate.'"
What makes underwater hockey a sport – When asked what makes underwater hockey a sport, Moss doesn't quite understand the question at first. That's because it's so fundamentally clear that underwater hockey is more than a game. "It is really really competitive," she clarifies.
"It is more than a game – it really means something to people."
To compete in underwater hockey, players balance a basic physiological need – the need to breathe – with the desire to win. Once you surface, you're effectively taken out of the play: You can no longer receive a pass, defend the goal, or score. In that sense, underwater hockey players compete with their bodies, as well as their opponents.
Moss says that most players will stay underwater for about 20 to 30 seconds. Some, though, will stay underwater for between two and three minutes to defend their goal. (That's not as long as it sounds – the world record for a voluntary underwater breath-hold is about 24 minutes and 3.45 seconds, which was achieved by profession free diver Aleix Segura Vendrell, in 2016).
It gets easier the more you play, she says, and the science of breath-holding backs her intuition up.
Freedivers regularly hold their breath for minutes at a time. They benefit from the "mammalian dive reflex," which is a slowing of the heart, and massive vasoconstriction in the rest of the body that allows blood to continue to circulate. The body also changes as a result of repeated diving: A study of Brazilian diving fishermen found that they had significantly higher lung volumes than normal, a result of adaptations borne of their aquatic profession.
For underwater hockey players, a combination of training and competitiveness keeps them down.
"Because you're so aware of the puck, you're not really aware of how much you need to breathe," Moss says.
Lung capacity is important, but it's not enough to simply possess the breath-holding stamina of a free diver, says Moss. Exceptional players are good at reading the game – knowing when they can afford to slip up for a quick breath of air, and when the play requires that they hang on just a second longer.
That's why the biggest mistake beginners make, she says, is relying on the physiological and not the tactical. They try to do too much and end up leaving the team exposed for a fully-oxygenated and coordinated counterattack.
"Rather than just being down when you think you need to be, it's being down for other players as well," she says.
The Michael Jordan of underwater hockey – Perhaps this speaks to the competitive nature of underwater hockey, but Moss is hesitant about offering up one individual player as the best in the sport. She says she could easily offer 60 players worthy of the title.
When pushed, she settles for a dream team: New Zealand's national underwater hockey team. At the 2019 World Championships in England, this team won three gold medals in three different age divisions and one bronze.
Elite underwater hockey players, she says, have one crucial skill: they have to bring out the best in other people and bring the team together well.
"It's very unlikely that one person is going to be able to swim through six other people. So you need to make sure that you work really well with your team," she says.
The spirit of underwater hockey – The New Zealand Underwater Hockey team's website sells the sport by offering a twist on one of it's hardest aspects: You can't communicate with your teammates at the bottom of the pool, so you have to get know them inside and out.
"Being unable to talk to your teammates might seem counterintuitive, but you build trust and friendship that carries on past the pool," their website reads.
Moss knows firsthand that underwater hockey can cultivate a specific kind of intense relationship: She met her husband playing the sport. The bridesmaid at her wedding was an underwater hockey player and she met her husband through the sport. Moss says there are numerous "underwater hockey couples" who have children. Their children also play underwater hockey.
"It sounds so cliché," she says, "but some people really do call it an underwater hockey family."
Like any family, the relationships are intense and deep. It requires some holding of breath to get through tough times, but it's a sport that's willing to open its arms to you if you've got people-reading skills and some serious lung power.