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Lacrosse Basics

For those who have never seen this sport before, it can be something of a revelation. It's a hugely enjoyable sport to play, and, once people have heard about it, highly enjoyable to watch too.

The very basics

So what is lacrosse? Reactions vary from "what?" to "oh, that's a women's game, isn't it?". Well, yes and no. Yes, there is a women's game, but there is a men's game as well, and they are quite different.

Both games involve teams getting a small, hard, rubber ball (the 'ball') into a roughly six-feet square goal (the 'goal') by the use of sticks with leather or synthetic netting forming an open scoop at the top (the 'sticks'). Simple. Yes, you can run with the ball, yes of course you can throw the ball to your team mates, and yes there is a goalkeeper.

Here are some of the more important differences between the women's game and the men's game:

Women's lacrosse Men's lacrosse
women's lacrosse
men's lacrosse
A non-contact sport, with very limited stick-on-stick checking A heavy-contact sport, with stick-against-stick, stick-against-body and body-against-body checking
Protective equipment for outfield players is limited to a mouthguard, thin leather gloves, and occasionally shinpads. The goalkeeper wears additional padding including helmet, gloves and chestpad. All players must wear a helmet with full-face visor, fully-padded gloves and shoulder pads. Most players additionally wear arm pads and/or rib pads. (Click the image above for an enlargement)
Playing field determined by 'natural boundaries', ie no strict field edges Playing field is marked out, and a foot on the line means turnover of possession (even if the ball-carrier has been forced out)
The pockets of the sticks are relatively shallow (less than the diameter of the ball), making it more difficult to maintain control of the ball under pressure The stick pockets are much deeper, so more effort is required to dislodge the ball from an opponent's stick
When the whistle blows, players must stop running and remain still until the whistle blows again for play to restart Players can regroup or make substitutions when the ball is dead
There is a marked area in front of the goal with restrictions on how long players may remain in this area In free play, movement is only restricted by the half-way line, and the circle around the goal (see later)

I'm flattered that the Reading Wildcats appreciated the value of this table!

The women's game is in many ways more faithful to the origins of Native American lacrosse than the current Men's game. If people have only seen the women's game, however, I think they'd be pleasantly surprised by the men's game.

The men's game

The men's game is played on a rectangular playing field, about 110 yards long, as shown in the picture.

A lacrosse pitch

A basic lacrosse pitch, showing the position and size of the goals

The goals are set forward from the end lines, rather like ice hockey, so play can be switched behind the goals to draw defenders out of position. Players are not allowed to go within the opposition's goal area, or 'crease', marked by a large circle surrounding each goal. There are 10 players per team on the field at any time, although the substitutes can be freely rotated during play, as in ice hockey. This allows for very fast team transitions, as extra defenders can be brought on for critical man-down periods, attacking units can be targeted at certain defences, and there are always fresh legs in the middle of the field.

Each player carries a stick, which may be between about 1m long and about 1.8m long, at the end of which is the head for catching, holding and passing the ball. The goalkeepers' stick heads are larger, but all the other sticks look something like the picture shown below.

A lacrosse stick head

An example of a lacrosse stick head,
in this case a Brine Cyber

 

The ball is made of rubber, and looks similar to a field hockey ball, around 6cm in diameter and usually white.

Any player can run with the ball, keeping the ball in the stick by a controlled 'cradling' motion of the stick head. To pass the ball, the stick is flicked forwards, forcing the ball upwards to catapult off the strings of the stick. Ideally the ball will then fly in a low, fast arc, at just over head height to the stick head of the (preferably moving) teammate. Shooting is performed in the same way, but obviously faster and targetted to miss the goalkeeper's stick!

Getting the ball off an opponent is generally fairly difficult, so possession of the ball is a lot more important than field position. Unlike in some sports where a speculative long ball can often pay dividends, the likelihood of the ball running out of bounds, or into the sticks of the opposition, tend not to favour such tactics in lacrosse (usually). With good offences, there is generally a mixture of quick passing all the way around the goal to try to twist the defence and create gaps, together with individual drives (with and without the ball) to create overlaps and free up men.

Lacrosse in action

An example of lacrosse in action,
showing the difference between
attackers' sticks and defence sticks

 

Body-on-body contact is important, to halt the opponent and drive them away from goal. Defenders can also use their stick (usually longer for more reach) to strike, or 'check' the ball-carrier's stick in an attempt to release the ball. They can also check the gloved hand while it is on the stick, to either jostle the ball or force the attacker to take that hand off their stick, reducing their ability to shoot or pass quickly.

The picture on the left shows how an attacker can 'shield' his stick with a stationary arm to protect it from the defender's checks. The ball is difficult to see here, but is being held in the attacker's stick by 'cradling' backwards and forwards (it's not allowed to hold it against the shoulder!).

Ideally the ball will not spend much time on the ground, but inevitably it will be dropped or checked loose. Play does not stop, unless the ball rolls off the pitch, but it simply becomes a race to scoop up the ball and continue play. And, as mentioned earlier, possession is extremely important as the ball doesn't take long to traverse the pitch at over 100mph!

So that's the basics of the game. See lacrosse.org for more details on the men's rules and women's rules. Sky Sports has also made a video introducing the English game showing mens, women's and children's versions of the game. And of course check out the other pages in this section on recent international events, with results, reports and pictures, including the 2006 world championships.