Are There Penalty Shots in Lacrosse?


Given the notable similarities between lacrosse and hockey, hockey players that transition over to lacrosse are always curious about whether or not lacrosse penalty shots exist. I wondered this myself and dug through some rulebooks online to find the answer.

There are penalty shots in box lacrosse, but not field lacrosse. Penalty shots are awarded in box lacrosse when a team commits a major penalty that takes away a high percentage scoring opportunity for the other team. The procedure for lacrosse penalty shots resembles the penalty shot rules in hockey.

There are various reasons as to why the rules regarding penalty shots differ between field lacrosse and box lacrosse. We will analyze these reasons in depth and go over the different instances where penalty shots are warranted in box lacrosse. Stick around until the end to see some electrifying examples of penalty shots in box lacrosse.

Why Penalty Shots Do Not Exist in Field Lacrosse

When people think of lacrosse, their minds automatically jump to field lacrosse. This is because field lacrosse is far and away the most popular version of lacrosse out there.

For those of you that do not know, field lacrosse is the outdoor version of lacrosse. Box lacrosse is the indoor version of the sport. Although the sports are similar in nature, there are some noticeable discrepancies between the two sports, like the presence of the penalty shot for example!

There are a few reasons as to why field lacrosse does not have penalty shots.

No Clear Breakaways

For one, there is no such thing as a clear breakaway in field lacrosse. There are fast breaks, but these scoring opportunities pale in comparison to breakaways.

The reason that breakaways don’t happen in field lacrosse is that there must always be four defenders positioned at each end of the field (including the goalie). When a player gathers up the ball and is off to the races, there is always some defensemen on the other end of the field waiting for them. Their constant presence stops any potential 1v1 breakaway with the goalie.

Typically, penalty shots are awarded when a team illegally interferes with a breakaway opportunity. If there are no breakaway opportunities in field lacrosse, there are not many opportunities for penalty shots by default.

Very Little, If Any, Sideline Interference

In addition, there are little to no instances where players from the sideline disrupt a scoring opportunity so meaningfully that it warrants a penalty shot. The field of play is so spacious that it’s challenging for any player to seriously disrupt the course of a game. A sideline player would have to run twenty to thirty yards to even come close to the net. By that time, the play will likely be over anyways, deeming the entire effort completely worthless.

This is the main reason why bench players rarely ever illegally tamper with the outcome of a lacrosse game. They’re simply too far away to disrupt a play in time. With box lacrosse, on the other hand, a sideline player could throw their stick onto the field and interrupt a breakaway opportunity for the opposition.

Too Big of a Lacrosse Net

Lastly, the dimensions of a field lacrosse goal are far too large for penalty shots. Field lacrosse goals are practically twice the size of a box lacrosse goal. Although the offense is supposed to score on a penalty shot, a goalkeeper would have a very low chance of actually coming away with a save given how large field lacrosse goals are.

If penalty shots were introduced into field lacrosse, it would virtually be a guaranteed goal, especially at the higher competitive levels where offensive players have refined their shooting precision. Both players and spectators want a level of suspense in these kinds of moments. Forcing offensive players to take penalty shots on a goalkeeper defending a field lacrosse goal would be akin to a lone warrior facing down a stampede of horses. Put simply, there would be a minimal chance of the goalkeeper coming away with their dignity.

Why Penalty Shots Exist in Box Lacrosse

Penalty shots make much more sense for box lacrosse. The subtle changes from field lacrosse to box lacrosse work in favor of incorporating penalty shots into live gameplay.

Fair Way to Restore Scoring Opportunities

Box lacrosse is different from field lacrosse in that a man up advantage is not the most ideal way to restore scoring opportunities. Since the playing area, or box, is much more condensed, both teams are packed into close quarters, making it exceedingly difficult for the offense to function smoothly. Even during a man up advantage, the extra offensive leverage is not nearly as pronounced because defenders are still able to easily rotate over to ball carriers because of the smaller playing area.

To make up for this, the penalty shot was instituted to discourage defenses from resorting to intentional fouls to ward off scoring threats. It’s a much better alternative than a man up advantage and provides offenses with a viable means of recuperating a high percentage scoring opportunity that was lost to a foul.

Smaller Goal Dimensions Makes Penalty Shots More Unbiased

In addition, box lacrosse features goals with much smaller dimensions relative to field lacrosse goals.

This also contributes heavily to the problem of the minor advantage of being man up because offensive players have severe trouble sneaking the ball into such a tiny net. Man down defenses that are blessed with a talented goalkeeper could hold their own against opposing offenses due in large part to these reduced goal dimensions.

Penalty shots are a superior alternative because it grants an offense a high percentage scoring opportunity, but not to the point where it would be considered unfair. Skilled goalies can cover a tremendous amount of surface area on the net when they position their bodies correctly. This gives them a fighting chance at making a save on a penalty shot, even if those chances are less than 50/50.

Bears a Stronger Resemblance to Hockey

If field lacrosse is the distant cousin to hockey, then box lacrosse is its long lost sibling. The similarities between the two sports are uncanny, which is why hockey fans and box lacrosse fans tend to intermix.

I suspect that one of the major reasons that the box lacrosse rules committee integrated the rule of penalty shots is because of how much success penalty shots have had in hockey. If I were on the rules committee, I would a be big proponent of introducing the penalty shot to lacrosse knowing that it’s one of the most thrilling elements in hockey.

Instances Where Penalty Shots are Awarded in Box Lacrosse

There are several fouls in box lacrosse that constitute a penalty shot. Each of these fouls are analyzed in greater detail below. For more information on how penalty shots are awarded, you can check out the formal box lacrosse rulebook at uslacrosse.org (source).

A Team with Two Players in the Penalty Box Commits Another Foul

If a team has committed two penalties within a short span of time, they’ll have two players serving time in the penalty box. Any penalty that occurs while these two players are still serving their time suspensions results in a penalty shot. This is done to prevent a team from having too few players in the playing area, while still severely penalizing a team for violating the rules a third time.

Deliberately Throwing a Stick at an Offensive Player to Interfere with a Breakaway

Another situation that warrants a penalty shot is when a defender intentionally disrupts a breakaway by throwing their stick (or any other object) at the ball carrier. When this happens, the play is allowed to continue. If the offense doesn’t score on the breakaway, a penalty shot is assessed.

Not Enough Playing Time Remaining When an Illegal Substitution Penalty is Issued

Illegal substitution penalties are issued when a team has too many players in the playing area at a single time. Late in the game when time is about to expire, there may not be enough time remaining for the offending team to serve out the entirety of their penalty suspension. As opposed to issuing a man up advantage at a reduced time suspension, referees avoid this problem altogether by awarding a penalty shot against the offending team.

Holding Back a Player on a Breakaway

Players that have a clear breakaway opportunity and are physically held back by a defender are entitled to a penalty shot. This is one of the more controversial calls in box lacrosse because holding typically happens at the very start of a breakaway.

It can be challenging for officials to determine whether or not the offensive player that was held had a clear, unobstructed path to the goal. Ultimately, it’s up to the discretion of the officiating crew to establish whether not the offended team is deserving of a penalty shot.

Crease Violation Imposed on the Defense

Sometimes, a defender will intentionally fall on top of or close their hand around a ball that is loose on the crease. This is yet another scenario that warrants a penalty shot since this takes away a major scoring opportunity for the other team.

Tripping a Player on a Breakaway

Another form of interference on a breakaway that warrants a penalty shot is tripping. Referees issue a penalty shot against the offending team when they witness a defender trip up a ball carrier that has a free path to the goal during an immediate transition from defense to offense. Generally, fouls from behind also fall into this category.

Purposefully Dislocating the Goal During a Breakaway

When goalies are truly desperate, they sometimes move the goal as a last resort to stifle a breakaway opportunity. This is another obvious circumstance where a penalty shot is assessed. It’s hard enough scoring on a stationary goal. Could you imagine trying to score on a moving goal? It would be chaos.

Leaving the Sidelines and Intervening with a Breakaway

Lastly, a penalty shot is levied if a player from the sidelines leaves their bench, illegally enters the playing area, and tries to stop an opponent’s breakaway opportunity. This rarely happens, but it’s an obvious breach of the lacrosse rules of conduct.

How Penalty Shots Work in Box Lacrosse

Now that you know when penalty shots are issued, you probably want to know how they actually work. If you’re familiar with penalty shots in hockey, the rules are remarkably similar. A brief overview of the basic procedure of penalty shots is listed below.

  • First, everyone is cleared from the box except for the player taking the penalty shot and the opposing goalkeeper. Any dressed player can take the penalty shot from the offended team.
  • The player taking the penalty shot is given a ball at the center of the midline, right at the face-off X.
  • Once the ball carrier and the goalkeeper have signaled they’re ready, the referee blows the whistle.
  • The ball carrier then starts their forward motion toward the goal. If they go backward, the penalty shot is deemed forfeit.
  • Typically, the ball carrier moves in close proximity to the crease before they take their shot. The same crease regulations in effect during standard gameplay apply to penalty shots as well.
  • The ball carrier then attempts their penalty shot, either resulting in a miss or a score. It’s important to note that players are only allowed one penalty shot.

Words can only do so much, so I included a couple of clips showing what an actual penalty shoot looks like in box lacrosse. This first clip illustrates how a penalty shot works at the youth level.

In this next clip, we’re jumping to the NLL, the home of professional box lacrosse. Being the highest level of box lacrosse out there, I thought it would be best to contrast how youth players conduct their penalty shots with how the professionals do it.

Do Box Lacrosse Players Score on the Majority of Penalty Shots?

Generally, box lacrosse players score on a high percentage of penalty shots. Since coaches are able to pick from any dressed player to take the penalty shot, they typically hand over the reins to the most skilled offensive player on the team. So not only is a penalty shot a 1v1 bout between a shooter and goalkeeper, it’s a contest between a team’s most dangerous scoring threat and a goalkeeper that’s essentially backed into a corner.

Needless to say, it’s awfully difficult for goalies to come away with saves in these one-on-one situations. To be fair, goalkeepers are not really expected to make saves during penalty shots. The most pressure is placed on the player taking the penalty shot because there is quite literally no better scoring opportunity that exists in box lacrosse.

Although penalty shots do heavily favor the offense, goalkeepers are able to come away with a stop every so often. Given the smaller dimensions of the box goal and the bulky pads of goalkeepers, taking advantage of a penalty may seem easy from afar, but it’s certainly no cakewalk.

If you don’t believe me, check out the video below. The clip shows that penalty shots are not guaranteed goals, even at the professional level.

How Often Do Penalty Shots Occur in Box Lacrosse?

Penalty shots don’t happen that often in box lacrosse, especially when compared to the frequency of fouls that are penalized with time suspensions.

The majority of fouls that occur in box lacrosse can be dealt with by way of the penalty box. Penalty shots are only used as a last resort for major breaches of the rules. As we discussed earlier, most penalty shots stem from fouls during breakaways. Breakaways are not even that common in box lacrosse. As you can probably imagine, penalty shots are even more of a rarity.

In short, penalty shots do come up from time to time, but not in every single game.

Final Thoughts

Penalty shots may not be present in field lacrosse, but they’re one of the most thrilling attractions of box lacrosse. Although they don’t happen often, players and fans can’t help but get excited when they pop up. In sports, there’s nothing like witnessing a true one-on-one contest of sheer will power. Penalty shots in box lacrosse is the epitome of this phenomenon.

Sources: 1

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of Lacrosse Pack. I enjoy hitting the local lacrosse fields and honing in on the craft in my free time.

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