Can You Stiff Arm in Lacrosse?


Football players that take up the sport of lacrosse often wonder if certain football moves translate over, like the stiff arm for example. Given the legality of physical contact in lacrosse, it is a valid point of curiosity.

Stiff arms are illegal in lacrosse. Ball carriers are prohibited from using their free arm to deliberately grip, shove, or control an opponent’s body or stick. Referees collectively label these illegal maneuvers as wards. Any form of a ward will immediately draw a penalty from the officials.

The “warding off” rule is a controversial topic in lacrosse since there are many shades of grey that lie in between what is a ward and what isn’t. The exact reasoning as to why stiff arms are considered blatant wards will be laid out in detail. Read on to discover exactly why new players are mistakenly led to believe that stiff arms are legal along with some alternative ways to properly safeguard possession in lacrosse.

How the Rule of Warding Deems Stiff Arms Illegal

For many of you, this is probably the first time you’ve ever heard of the warding off rule. In order to fully understand why stiff arms are outlawed in lacrosse, it is necessary to take an in depth look at what the warding rule actually entails.

Brief Overview of Warding Rule

To give you glimpse at what the formal ruling on what warding is in lacrosse, I provided the following excerpt from the NCAA men’s lacrosse rulebook (source).

Warding Off: A player in possession of the ball may not use his free hand or arm, or any other part of his body, to hold, push or control the direction of the movement of the crosse or body of an opponent.

Although this rule may seem cut and dry on paper, it’s a lot more difficult to call in game. There are many times during a lacrosse game where a ball carrier brushes their free arm up against the stick of a defender. To referees, it can be hard to judge whether this incidental contact is negligible or worthy of a flag, especially with how fast-paced lacrosse games are.

Consequently, there is a subtle element of subjectivity involved with determining what is a ward and what isn’t a ward. Officials that tend to call the game a little bit tighter will likely deem any controversial free arm use from the ball carrier as a ward. In contrast, referees that allow teams to play more loosely will probably let ball carriers get away with some delicate use of the free arm.

How Warding Relates to Stiff Arms

Stiff arms is the most blatant form of a ward out there. Ask any referee if a stiff arm is a ward and they will confirm this sentiment.

In order to stiff arm an opponent, a player has to deliberately reach out with their free arm and shove an opponent out of their way. This is the very definition of a ward, in every sense of the ruling.

It’s extremely easy for referees to penalize stiff arms because of the conspicuous extension of the arm. As soon as a ball carrier intentionally reaches out to shove their opponent, referees are reaching for that yellow flag in their back pocket. Rarely, if ever, do ball carriers get away with successfully stiff arming an opponent.

Most experienced lacrosse players do not even attempt stiff arms because they are well aware that the risk far outweighs the reward. Only newer lacrosse players are penalized for attempting to stiff arm an opponent. Typically, it is because they’re completely ignorant of the fact that the warding off rule even exists.

Why Players Mistakenly Believe Stiff Arms are Allowed in Lacrosse

New players that transition over to lacrosse from other sports, such as football or rugby, are under the false impression that the stiff arm is legal in lacrosse simply because it’s a contact sport. Although stiff arms may be acceptable in other contact sports, that does not mean it translates over to lacrosse.

Athletes are drawn in by seeing lacrosse compilations of dynamic body to body collisions and powerful stick checks. Since they have only ever been exposed to this type of lacrosse content, it’s hard to break the notion that any sort of contact is legal in lacrosse.

Luckily, the lacrosse rules committee has been making an effort to change this narrative as of late. They’e been trying to promote player safety above all else by clarifying the rules regarding contact and introducing several new points of emphasis to incoming referees.

For example, they’ve stressed that any forceful blows to the head or neck area are not to be tolerated, regardless of whether the offending player is on offense or defense. They even went ahead and further defined these rules further by showing video examples of what referees should explicitly look for when faced with a controversial call (source).

Efforts such as these have helped to rewrite the narrative and demonstrate to new lacrosse players that they should not use contact as a means to injure, but as a means to an end. This in depth clarification of the rules has also helped further ingrain the idea into the lacrosse community that stiff arms will neither be condoned nor permitted.

The Penalty for Stiff Arming an Opponent in Lacrosse

Even with these recent rule clarifications, there are still instances where players stiff arm their opponent and force the referees to call a penalty for warding. You are likely wondering, “What is the penalty for warding off anyway?”

Warding is considered a minor infraction in lacrosse, otherwise known as a technical fouls. The punishment for technical fouls is light relative to more serious transgressions, like personal fouls.

For warding, the team that committed the ward is penalized by immediately forfeiting possession to the other team. Since lacrosse is such an up tempo game, play only stops for ten to fifteen seconds. The general process by which this change of possession is handled by the officiating crew is outlined below.

  • As soon as the referees witness a ball carrier ward off, they blow their whistles.
  • They then announce the ward off call to communicate why they blew the whistle in the first place.
  • From there, they tell the ball carrier to immediately drop the ball.
  • The ball carrier must drop the ball where they’re currently positioned to avoid drawing a separate delay of game penalty.
  • Once a player from the other team picks up the ball and shows the officials they’re ready, the referees blow their whistle again to resume normal play.

No trip to the penalty box is needed for warding calls because the team that was fouled never had possession of the ball at the time when the foul was committed.

Alternative Methods of Protecting the Ball in Lacrosse

When new lacrosse players learn that the warding off rule forbids players from utilizing the stiff arm as a means of safeguarding possession, they have to explore new avenues to protect the ball from defensive pressure. It’s imperative that lacrosse beginners learn the proper technique to protect their stick to avoid developing any bad habits in the long run.

One Handed Cradle

One way that many experienced lacrosse players protect their stick is by making use of the one handed cradle. With the one handed cradle, on ball defenders have a much more difficult time stripping the ball because the stick is tucked behind the body of the ball carrier. Their upper torso acts a physical barrier between any potential stick checks that have a chance at jarring the ball out of place.

Attackmen frequently use the one handed cradle to fend off long stick defensemen from checking their stick. One talented attackmen that uses this method frequently is Rob Pannell. First, he executes his initial dodging maneuver with two hands on his stick. As soon as he breaks out of that move, he utilizes the one handed cradling technique to shield the ball from the on ball defender.

To get a better indication of what this actually looks like, click on the video below!

You should also take note that Pannell tends to form a rigid “L shape” with his free arm when he one handed cradles. This “L shape” further protects the ball from being jarred loose by the defender. Although Pannell’s free arm does hold off the defender’s stick checks, it’s not considered a ward because he does not ever move his protecting arm toward the defender.

So long as you keep your free arm stationary, you cannot be called for a ward. When you decide to one handed cradle, I highly recommend adopting this strategy to fully maximize stick protection. I’m a firm believer in taking bits and pieces from lacrosse pros and slowly blending these clever tactics into your own unique play style.

Initiating Contact with the Defender

Another clever method of stick protection that the majority of lacrosse players overlook is initiating contact with the defender.

As a ball carrier, you can create sufficient separation just by using the force of your body to drive a defender away. Any time that a defender gets up too close, don’t let them dictate the terms of the physical engagement. Instead, take it upon yourself to knock the defender back.

Not only does this help to protect the ball in the short term, it helps discourage your opponent from throwing body checks in the future. Defenders are much more likely to pounce on a ball carrier that isn’t willing to put up a fight. When you bring the fight to them, however, it’s a completely different story.

This is not to say that you should bulldoze over opponents every opportunity you have. More than likely, you’ll end up in the penalty box for unnecessary roughness if you make a habit of purposefully plowing through the opposition.

The key takeaway here is that contact is not only reserved for the defense. Many lacrosse players forget that ball carriers have a right to initiating contact as well.

To better illustrate this idea, I included some film of Dylan Molloy protecting his lacrosse stick time and time again by initiating contact with defenders. Molloy is certainly a solid player to model your game after, especially considering that he was the 2016 Tewaaraton Award Winner, an honor given to the best lacrosse player of the D1 collegiate season.

Bottom Line

In short, lacrosse players are not allowed to stiff arm opponents during a game because of the presence of the warding off rule. However, there are viable alternatives to the stiff arm to better safeguard your stick from defenders. Experiment with a diversity of stick protection strategies to see what works best for you. After all, you’ll never know what strategies to use if you never try them out for yourself!

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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