How Penalties Work in Lacrosse: A Helpful, Illustrated Guide

Every sport has a specific set of rules set in place to keep the game safe and fair. Lacrosse is no exception. When players break these rules, there must be consequences to pay. For newcomers to the game of lacrosse, understanding how these penalties are issued can be confusing at first.

Lacrosse teams that violate the rules are penalized by playing a specified amount of time at a player disadvantage, commonly referred to as man down. The offending team must play with 9 players on the field instead of 10 for a timeframe that typically lasts anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes.

That is a brief overview of how penalties work in lacrosse, but there’s a lot of underlying regulations and team strategy that goes along with penalties behind the scenes. We will analyze this information step-by-step to better understand the how and the why of lacrosse penalties so that you could be better aware of what’s happening in the game.

Types of Lacrosse Violations

The first order of business is to understand the different nature of lacrosse penalties. Penalties fall into two general categories: technical fouls and personal fouls. We will discuss the meanings of these terms along with some examples of each type of violation below.

Technical Foul

Relative to personal fouls, technical fouls are definitely the more minor of the two. These kinds of penalties are somewhat petty, as they have to do more with the small little details of the game more than anything else. These fouls rarely ever place another player at significant risk for injury. The penalty for a technical foul varies depending on whether or not the offending team has possession of the ball at the time the foul is committed.

If a team commits a technical foul while in possession of the ball, they immediately forfeit possession to the other team. However, if the offending team is playing defense at the time that the technical foul is committed, the offending team has to spend 30 seconds of actual game time at a player disadvantage.

The offending player kneels in a designated spot on the field called the penalty box and serves out the specified time suspension. It’s located just behind the substitution box.

Examples of technical fouls include the following (source).

  • Pushing
  • Holding
  • Illegal Offensive Screen
  • Offside
  • Illegal Procedure
  • Warding Off
  • Over and Back
  • Crease Violation
  • Interference
  • Stalling

Personal Foul

In contrast to technical fouls, personal fouls are far more serious transgressions. These fouls put players at a much higher risk for potential injury. This is largely because the majority of these violations have to do with hazardous physical contact between players.

Since personal fouls threaten player safety, the penalties are much more severe to discourage players from encroaching into this dangerous territory. Typically, personal fouls are penalized with a 1 to 3 minute suspension from game play. Again, the offending player serves their penalty time in the designated penalty box.

However, if the personal foul was blatantly malicious and deliberate, the offending player may be disqualified from the game outright.

Examples of personal fouls are outlined in the list below (source).

  • Cross-Checking
  • Illegal Body Checking
  • Defenseless Player
  • Checks to Head/Neck
  • Slashing
  • Tripping
  • Unnecessary Roughness
  • Unsportsmanlike Conduct

How Penalties are Called on the Field

When a lacrosse referee witnesses a violation during live gameplay, they immediately take a yellow flag from their pocket and throw it into the air onto the field. Contrary to popular opinion, referees don’t immediately the blow whistle to stop play in every single game situation. In certain situations, the game is allowed to continue even though the yellow flag has already been thrown onto the field.

Play-On Scenario

The play-on scenario is what makes this possible. When a lacrosse official sees that the defense has committed a foul, they toss the yellow flag onto the field but refuse to blow the whistle right away. This begs the question, why?

It would be unfair to the offense for play to be immediately stopped simply because the defense committed a foul. The immediate stoppage of play would take away a potential scoring opportunity for them.

For example, say the offense was making real headway and opening up some cracks in the defense by executing quick passes and calculated dodges. Once they’re finally able to cash in all their hard work for a high percentage shot on goal, the entire play is deemed forfeit because of a penalty they didn’t commit. You can see how an offense could get frustrated.

Plus, the play-on scenario prevents the defense from exploiting penalties to stop play every time the offense has a wide open shot on goal. I know that if I were a defender, I would foul someone nearby if this looked especially dire for us. This way, our defense could reset and recuperate and have a better chance at coming out of the possession unscathed.

The referees only blow the whistle and formally issue the penalty when the defense gains possession, when the ball goes out of bounds, or ends up in the back of the net.

To see what an actual play on scenario looks like, check out the video below.

Immediate Stoppage of Play

Now, let’s talk about the game situations where play is instantly stopped. If the team currently in possession of the ball commits a foul, play is immediately stopped.

There is no need for a play-on scenario when the offense is the perpetrating team. They aren’t awarded with the opportunity to continue the possession because they’re the ones who committed the penalty in the first place. For this reason, as soon as a referee witnesses an offensive player violate the rules, they blow the whistle and halt play.

The Different Severity Levels of Lacrosse Penalties

Each foul that is committed in lacrosse is penalized to a different degree of severity. These varying degrees of severity are explained in the subsequent sections.

Releasable Penalty

The least severe form of penalty is the releasable penalty. With a releasable penalty, the player in the penalty box can re-enter the game if the opposing team scores a goal before the allotted penalty time has run out. Generally, releasable penalties are often associated with technical fouls, given that they are only minor infractions.

For example, say that a player has been issued a 30 second penalty for an illegal push. The opposing team manages to score a quick goal while they have a man up advantage only 15 seconds into the penalty. In this case, the goal is counted and the remaining 15 seconds left on the player suspension is waved off. Play resumes in the standard 10v10 game format.

Unreleasable Penalty

Unreleasable penalties have far more repercussions than a releasable penalty. With an unreleasable penalty, the offending player must serve out the entire penalty time issued to them, regardless of whether the other team scores or not. Unreleasable penalties go hand in hand with personal fouls. Since a personal foul is a more severe kind of violation, it rightfully deserves a more severe penalty.

For instance, let’s consider a hypothetical game scenario where a player threw a very reckless check at an opponent’s head. The official issues a 3 minute, unreleasable penalty to the offending player.

Even if the other team scores two goals within the first minute of the penalty, the offending player cannot re-enter the game. The penalized team must play man down for the entirety of the 3 minute timeframe.

As you can probably imagine, unreleasable penalties can turn the tide of a game in favor of the other team rather quickly. It is far easier for an offense to rack up several goals within a couple of minutes if they are awarded with a man up advantage. Put simply, an unreleasable penalty can very likely equate to a 2 or 3 goal swing. This is why it’s so important that lacrosse teams avoid unreleasable penalties at all costs.


Although rare, it’s also possible that an especially violent foul could be penalized with disqualification. Typically, only plays that have deliberate malicious intent are grounds for disqualification. However, there are instances where players make a very reckless play and earn themselves a disqualification.

Keep in mind that a disqualification does not mean that the penalized team must play man down the whole game. Lacrosse penalties do not resemble red cards in soccer whatsoever. Instead, it’s standard for the offending team to be issued a 3 minute, unreleasable penalty with the additional stipulation that the offending player cannot re-enter the game under any circumstances. Another player from the team must fill their place.

How Teams Play Man Down During the Penalty Time

While a team is man down, there are a couple of strategies that a team tries to implement on offense and defense to stop the bleeding if you will. It’s important that you learn these fundamental defensive strategies in case you find yourself out on the field in a man down situation.

To learn more about the specifics behind the strategy of man down defense, click over to my article What Does Man Down Mean in Lacrosse? (Definition & Examples).

Man Down Defense

For man down defense, the overarching goal is to hold the offense off long enough to get their sixth defender (excluding the goalie) out of the penalty box and back onto the field. Although it would be nice to generate a turnover while man down, it’s not the main priority. If defenders play too aggressively and venture too far away from the goal, the defense will be left in an especially vulnerable position.

Basic man down strategy calls for the defense to pack in tight and only contest ball carriers that are in close proximity to the goal. As a result of this strategy, the opposing offense may have hands free shots at low shooting angles or from 15 yards out. In a man down situation, this is the best you can hope for defensively. It is better for the defense to let up an uncontested, low percentage shot from 15 yards out than a free shot on goal from 5 yards out.

When playing man down, you have to be willing to sacrifice and prioritize your defensive responsibilities. Unfortunately, there is always going to be a situation where one defender is forced to guard two offensive players when a defense is man down. Man down defenses have to be acutely aware of these 2v1 situations and ensure that they are as far away from the ball carrier as possible. This way, the offense has a difficult time exploiting these 2v1 matchups.

In addition, coaches always tell their man down defense to take care of the immediate threats near the goal first and worry about the players positioned far away from the goal later. This is yet another difficult, but necessary, sacrifice that defenses have to make in order to give their team the best chance at holding out long enough for the penalty to expire.

A standard man down defensive set up is depicted in the following diagram.

Man down defensive setups are packed tightly and deliberately positioned closer to the goal.

To see a successful man down defense in action, click on the video below!

Man Down Offense

The top priority of the man down offense still remains the same as the man down defense. The primary objective is to run down the clock and get back to even strength as quickly as possible.

To accomplish this, man down offenses do their very best to retain possession and play keep-away from the defense. Since the offense is a player short in a 5v6 situation (excluding the goalie), the opposing defense can double team whoever has the ball without having to worry about leaving a man open. For this reason, every player that touches the ball on a man down offense is forced to run around constantly to avoid being swallowed up into the double team.

Obviously, this is a lot easier said than done. At one point or another, a ball carrier is bound to spend the last of their energy reserve. This is the opportune time for the double team to strike and strip the ball away. This is why it’s so important that every player on the offense shares the running burden so one player isn’t carrying the brunt of the load. Assigning one player to play keep-away is a recipe for disaster.

One clever tactic that man down offenses like to do to waste the most amount of penalty time possible is run around at X. For those of you that do not know, X is the field area behind the goal. The reason that coaches tell their players to play keep-away behind the goal is because it’s the farthest point from the other end of the field. That way, if the ball does end up getting lost, the other team still has to waste time traveling the entire length of the field to reset their offense. By the time they reach the other end of the field, the hope is that the penalty will have already expired.

How Lacrosse Penalties are Released

Once a penalty has expired, the offending player is released from the penalty box and another player is allowed to sub onto the field through the substitution box. A person at the scorer’s table counts down exactly when the penalty is released. As soon as the player subbing onto the field is given the green light, they re-enter the game.

With that being said, there are predominantly two ways that a team can get their freshly released player back into the offensive or defensive zone. They can send a player directly from the box or they can send a player from the midline.

Basic Penalty Release Strategy: Releasing Directly from the Substitution Box

The most basic method that a team returns to full strength following a penalty is by sending the player back onto the field straight through the box. As soon as the penalty expires, the player that runs onto the field from the substitution box and makes a beeline to whichever side the ball is presently located.

Although this is the most straightforward penalty release strategy, it’s not the quickest method for a team to get back to full strength. The player sprinting from the substitution box has to cover a lot of ground before they can contribute to the offense or defense.

A visual depiction of this penalty release strategy is shown below.

Defensive midfielder runs directly from the substitution box into the defensive half.

Fortunately, lacrosse teams have found a reliable way to cut down on this running distance significantly.

Advanced Penalty Release Strategy: Releasing Indirectly from the Midline

This penalty release method is a bit more complicated, but far more efficient. The whole premise of this strategy is to release the player from the center of the midline so they can take the shortest route possible to get back into the thick of the action.

This advanced penalty release strategy is better explained in steps. Below, I will walk you through exactly how teams are able to release their players from the midline. Often times, teams that are man down are stuck on defense, so I will explain it from a man down defensive perspective rather than a man down offensive perspective. Just know that this method could work for both man down defense and man down offense.

  1. A defensive midfielder is brought from the bench to the substitution box.
  2. Once the penalty time is on the verge of expiring, the defensive midfielder substitutes for an attackman onto the half of the field that’s away from the action.
  3. The defensive midfielder runs to the center of the midline and waits patiently for the penalty to expire. The attackman that subbed off waits in the substitution box.
  4. As soon as the penalty time expires, the defensive midfielder sprints from the center of the midline back to the defense. The attackman steps back into the game, returning to the field half where they originally started.
  5. Once all players are back in position, the team has returned to full strength.

I know this can be hard to visualize, so I provided a diagram below depicting these various steps.

Defensive midfielder substitutes on for an attackman on the team’s offensive half of the field, away from where the man down defense is.
As soon as the penalty is released, the defensive midfielder sprints to the defensive half from the center of the midline. The attackman steps back onto the field from the substitution box.
Once every player has returned to their standard position on the field, the team is back at full strength.

Can a Team Serve Multiple Penalties at the Same Time?

Many lacrosse newcomers wonder whether or not it’s possible for a team to serve more than one penalty simultaneously. Although rare, the answer is a resounding yes!

Remember the play-on scenario we discussed earlier? Occasionally, after the defense has already committed a penalty, the defense draws yet another penalty that’s completely separate from the first. If both fouls are rather severe, the offending team will have to serve both penalties at the same time. As a result, they will be two men down!

A team may also be forced to serve multiple penalties at the same time, if the defense commits a penalty while they’re man down. In this scenario, the time remaining on the first penalty still has to be served in addition to the entire length of the second penalty time.

To see this rare occurrence for yourself, check out the video below.

Obviously, this is a situation that lacrosse defenses want to stay away from, but mistakes inevitably happen. When the defense is two men down, the likelihood that the opposing offense scores at least one goal goes up astronomically. But it’s still possible for a defense to hold out in spite of the grim circumstances, as displayed in the film clip above.

Can Both Teams Serve Penalties at the Same Time?

Another curiosity that new lacrosse players have is whether or not both lacrosse teams can have players in the penalty box at the same time. Again, the answer is yes!

If both teams commit a penalty within relatively the same timeframe, the referees enforce what is commonly known to them as simultaneous fouls (source). As you can probably imagine, this ruling can get a little confusing, even for veteran officials. Nonetheless, simultaneous fouls do happen every so often. In fact, it happens so often that the NCAA outlined a specific example in their rulebook.

In this hypothetical scenario, the ball is loose and neither team has possession. While the ball is live, a player from team B pushes a player from team A from behind, drawing a flag. The loose ball scrum continues as a play-on even after the flag. During the play-on, that same player from team A turns and slashes the player from team B, drawing yet another flag from the official. So, how do lacrosse officials rule this situation?

This is a classic case of simultaneous fouls. The player from team B earns a 30 second trip to the penalty box for the push from behind, and the player from team A earns a minute long trip to the penalty box for the slash. In this specific situation, the first 30 seconds of each penalty would be unreleasable. Consequently, the next 30 seconds of the game would be played 9v9 instead of 10v10 (source).

Do Lacrosse Teams Have the Opportunity to Challenge a Call on the Field?

Lastly, players that transition to lacrosse over from football wonder about the possibility of teams having a chance to challenge calls made on the field, like the NFL.

At the youth and high school level, lacrosse doesn’t offer teams the luxury of a challenge, nor will they probably ever earn this luxury. At the collegiate level, there are talks of instituting instant replay some time in the near future (source). However, no specific date has been set into stone. This does show that it’s likely that collegiate lacrosse will incorporate their own version of the challenge in order to keep the fairness of the game intact.

Recently, the professional levels of lacrosse have been trending toward placing a greater emphasis in this department. In fact, Major League Lacrosse (MLL) introduced limited instant replay to add another layer of unpredictability to the game. It’s still in the experimental phase somewhat, but it is definitely a sign for things to come.

In summary, there is no definitive method for lacrosse teams to challenge plays at the moment, but there is a considerable degree of potential in this area.

Final Thoughts

Penalties are a fundamental part of the game of lacrosse. In order to thoroughly understand everything that is happening on the field, you need to be intimately familiar with how penalties are called, how penalties are served, and how penalties are released. Take the knowledge above and apply it on the lacrosse field so that you can be better equipped to take on any situation that the game throws at you.

Sources: 1 2

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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