Aim of the Game
Simple: To score more goals than your opposition.
A goal is scored by getting the ball into your opponents goal. All players use a lacrosse stick to carry and throw the ball. A game is run over four periods (quarters) of 20 minutes each. Teams swap ends after each quarter. Most teams expect to score around 12 goals per game. Low scoring games of say 6-4 are possible if the defensive play is strong. A scoreline of say 20-4 is classed as a stuffing! A really good team against poor opposition could expect to score 30+ goals, but this is rare.
Lacrosse is a squad game like basketball or ice hockey. In the UK, the typical squad size is between 12 and 18 players. While for international events and the big leagues in the States and Canada, squad sizes are 40+ players. A maximum of 10 players from each team can be on the pitch at any one time. Also like ice hockey, rolling substitutions are key to success, more on that later.
Layout of Pitch and Goals
The pitch is approximately the size of a field hockey pitch but with the goals set into the pitch (like ice hockey) by about 10 yards it often feels slightly smaller. The pitch markings are fairly simple. The key markings are the halfway line and goal crease – see Off-side and Restricted Pitch Areas. The other markings are mostly related to face-off (quarter start and restart after each goal) play.
The goal nets are 6 feet square in size. The ball is about the size of a tennis ball and solid rubber – so it can hurt if it hits you in the wrong place!
In the UK nearly all games are played on grass pitches. In North America, artificial surfaces are common and games are also played indoors in ice hockey style arenas on carpet. This indoor game is also known as “box lacrosse” and has slightly different, more dynamic/aggressive rules.
Equipment – The Stick
A lacrosse stick varies in length (depending on playing position, see below) and head size. A ‘pocket’ formed by the stick net holds the ball in the stick. The basic skills when learning are catching, throwing and running with the ball.
Players in different positions use different style of stick.
- Attack/Midfield – Use a ‘short stick’ of about 3 feet in lengh. This is the standard lacrosse stick.
- Defense – Use a ‘long-stick’ of about 6 feet in length. The head and pocket is the same as the short stick.
- Goalkeeper – Uses a stick with a much larger head to aid catching and stopping the ball.
Equipment – Protection
Protective body equipment is essential!
The minimum by law is a full-face helmet and gloves. Most players additionally wear shoulder pads, elbow pads and a box (to protect the privates!). Also available are pads for the lower torso area which are often worn by attack players who often get hit in the ribs and sides of the stomach.
The goalkeeper wears surprisingly little protection considering how fast the ball can be thrown. In addition to the helmet, gloves and box a goalie wears a throat guard below the helmet and a chest pad. A lacrosse goalie needs to be agile, highly reactive and able to run, so dressing up like a hockey goalie is not the way forward.
Off-Side and Restricted Pitch Areas
At least three outfield players must be in each half of the pitch at all times (excluding goalkeeper). With nine outfield players, normally this means the three long-stick defenders stay in the defending half and the three attackers stay in the attacking half. The small circular goal crease can only be entered by the defending team, normally just occupied by the goalie. The goalkeeper is protected in this area but must release the ball within four seconds or must leave the crease and cannot return again if still has possession of the ball. Most goalkeepers have the desire at some point during the game to go crazy and leg it up the pitch with the ball. This is allowed and they occasionally actually score a goal!
At the start of each quarter and to re-start after each goal is the “face-off”. A midfield player from each team competes for the ball on the centre spot. The technique is a bit of a black art, somewhat like front-row scrum play in rugby, a mix of brute strength and technique. A soon as the whistle is blown to face-off, the other two midfield players can run in from the sides to help out. The attack and defense must stay behind the ‘restrainer’ lines until someone has possession of the ball. Then field restrictions for off-side only apply.
In a similar way to basketball, the ball quickly moves from end to end into settled play. The off-side rule means that settled play is 6 attackers versus 6 defenders and the goalie. An attempt to run directly at goal, shooting and scoring is fool hardy. Only a highly skillful attack player or a weak defense and goalie would allow this to happen. The trick is the turn the heads of the defence, use clever off the ball movement with quick, sharp passing of the ball to create a good shooting chance. Most teams play a man-on-man defensive formation but various flavours of zone defence is another option.
The techniques used to win back the ball are;
- A “stick check” – Hitting the stick with your stick causing the ball to be dislodged from within the net. A well directed stick check does not have to be given with much force to see the ball flying out of the stick. However the attacker can use his body to shield the stick and good ball handling technique can prevent the ball from coming out
- A “poke check” – Using your stick to poke the attackers hand holding their stick. The main reason protective gloves are worn is that the majority of contact with the stick is directly at or around the hands. If a poke check misses the hands and lands in the chest or stomach then that’s tough luck – remember what we said about attackers wearing rib pads…
- A “body check” – Ignore the stick, hit them with your shoulder! A body check can only be used on a player with the ball, or a player within a few feet of the ball. It must be from the front or side. You cannot push anyone from behind. The intended result of a body check is your opponent losing balance and hence control of the ball. If really well timed, your opponent finds himself leaving the ground, flying through the air in a beautiful arc, then crashing to the floor. The ball pops out of his stick, you pick it up, pass it to a team mate and get it up the other end!
So you can be fairly aggressive in both attack and defense but there are a few things you are not allowed to do. You cannot;
- Stick check on the head – an accidental ‘brush’ on the helmet may be forgiven by the referee
- Trip up a player
- Body check below the waist (i.e. no American football style knee-high tackles)
- Push from behind
- Grab or hold with your hands, arms or legs
- Poke with the butt (non head end) of the stick
In most cases, illegal play results in a sin-bin sending off. 30 seconds for a technical foul and 1 minute for a personal foul. For extreme foul play you’ll be off for 2 minutes (i.e. fighting, unsportsmanlike conduct or dangerous play). A team with an extra man has a significant advantage and should create a good goal scoring chance.
Transition Play and Substitutions
The fast pace of the game and the off-side rule means that midfield players do a lot of running! The ‘transition’ is getting the ball from one end to another. Say if the goalie catches the ball, the defenders will get out to the sides of the pitch to find open space and receive the ball. However the goalie is really looking for a midfield player to find space around the halfway line to receive the ball and take it into the attacking half. If no midfield players are open, a long-stick defence player is the next best option.
The transition from defence to attack is the best time for the midfield to substitute. A well organised team can rotate the entire three-man midfield in a matter of seconds. The bench will also contain a couple of extra attack and long-stick defence players. Rotating the attack line-up can give players a breather and set a different challenge to the defence. Likewise with the long-sticks but only a maximum of 4 long-stick players can be on the field at any one time. Often you’ll see teams use all 4 long-stick players at face-off’s and in man-down defensive play.