How Substitutions Work in Lacrosse: A Detailed Guide


With all of the running that goes on in lacrosse, there are bound to be substitutions. However, the exact procedure of substitutions is a lot to take in at first. I know the first time I stepped into a lacrosse game, I was overwhelmed at how quickly the substitutions worked.

In lacrosse, players are substituted on the fly without any game delay, similar to hockey. Players switch on and off the field via a designated area called the substitution box. Here, teams can alternate offensive personnel for defensive personnel (and vise versa) as the ball switches field halves.

The substitution procedures of lacrosse carry more weight in game than you would initially think. The specific rate and timing of substitutions in lacrosse can have a tremendous impact on the overall flow of the game. In the latter portions of the article, we will investigate this impact further, along with how often players substitute and whether there is a set limit to how many substitutions a team is allotted.

A Full Rundown of the Standard Substitution Procedures in Lacrosse

Have you ever watched a hockey game? If so, you have likely observed how the players quickly switch on and off the ice with unbelievable precision and efficiency. The action never stops, but the players do need a break at some point. This is why substitutions are made on the fly.

The substitution procedures in lacrosse work very much in the same way, just without the ice. The officials don’t blow the whistle to stop play and allow for substitutions like they do in soccer or basketball. Instead, lacrosse players hop on and off the field without having to wait for a dead ball opportunity.

Overview of Basic Substitution Procedure

The way it works is that there is a designated area located at the center of one of the sidelines where all the player transactions are made. This section of the field is more commonly referred to as the substitution box. At the youth and high school level, the substitution box is twenty yards long. At the collegiate level, the substitution box is ten yards long. Teams have the benefit of utilizing the entire length of the box to switch out their personnel.

Throughout these substitutions, teams are only allowed to maintain a maximum of ten players on the field at a time. As a result, each player that steps off of the field can only be replaced by one player. Players that are subbing onto the field must wait patiently until their teammate that is subbing off the field has fully entered the substitution box. It is prohibited for them to go early, because then there would technically be more than ten players on the field at that specific time. Teams having more than ten players on the field will be met with penalty.

In the midst of all the chaos of substituting on the fly, teams do occasionally substitute too many players onto the field. In contrast, there are also times where teams substitute too few players on the field, essentially offering the other team a man up advantage.

Furthermore, teams are not allowed to crowd the box with players. If a team has an excessive number of players in the box, the referees will typically issue a warning to the coach to clean up the substitution box. Teams that fail to heed this warning will be penalized.

Example of Basic Substitution Procedure

To see an example of the lacrosse substitution procedure in real time, click on the clip below of Penn State subbing off their defensive personnel for their offensive personnel.

Notice how there is no formal interruption of play. They simply conduct their own player transactions without the referees having to signal a dead ball.

This is certainly one of the more nonchalant examples of substitution in lacrosse. I provided this casual example so you can better keep track of how teams alternate their personnel. The majority of the time, however, teams switch out their personnel much quicker than this, especially during fast break opportunities.

Overview of Advanced Substitution Procedure

At the higher competitive tiers of lacrosse, like the collegiate or professional level, teams employ an alternative substitute method when trying to substitute offensive personnel onto the field as swiftly as possible.

Once the defensive midfielders have accomplished their job of clearing the from the defensive zone to the offensive zone, their next task is to rotate off for the offensive personnel. Collegiate and professional lacrosse differ from youth and high school lacrosse in that they must follow a running shot clock on offense. They do not have time to spare idling around. The offensive playmakers need to get onto the field asap or they risk a shot clock violation.

To maximize substitution efficiency, collegiate and professional level lacrosse teams have implemented a more complicated method than the fundamental strategy of switching players in and out strictly through the box. The steps for this method are as follows.

  • As soon as the ball has been successfully cleared, one of the close defenseman substitutes off for an offensive midfielder.
  • Once the offensive midfielder steps onto the field on the defensive half, they make their way over to the center of the field.
  • With the ball cleared and the defensive midfielder having done their job, they sprint to the substitution box.
  • Once the defensive midfielder steps off of the field, the close defenseman steps back onto the defensive half.
  • The subbing on of the close defenseman signals to the offensive midfielder to cross over the midline onto the offensive half.

If this is hard to visualize, I provided the general premise of this advanced substitution in the field diagram below.

This saves the offensive midfielder from having to sprint to their designated position on the field that is a considerable distance away from the substitution box. It also saves the offense precious time in that they don’t have to wait for the offense to establish their set. They can initiate the offense almost immediately.

This advanced substitution strategy isn’t necessary at the youth and high school level because there is no shot clock present. But if you witness this happening at the collegiate or professional level, now you know why!

How Substitutions Impact the Flow of the Game

Substitutions on the fly have a number of consequences on the overall flow of lacrosse. Although substitution procedures may not be at the forefront of every lacrosse player’s mind, they are important to take into account when trying to gather every little edge over an opponent.

Substitution Play Can Cut Off the Fast Break

The extreme length of the substitution box offers defenses a noticeable advantage in getting back into position. If done correctly, it almost seems as though a defender has teleported ten or twenty yards ahead to get back to the defensive end of the field.

For example, say that a player runs off the field into the substitution box to its far right end, straight beside the cone. In this case, the player subbing on does not have to enter onto the field at the far right side of the box. They can enter onto the field from the right side, the middle, or the left side. It is legal for them to step onto the field from any point that is sectioned off by the substitution box.

This is important to note because it allows teams to save their players several yards of running as the ball moves from one end of the field to the other. If you have a hard time picturing this in your head, this optimized substitution method is shown in the diagram below.

From the picture above, you can see why it is seems as though the defensive midfielder teleported the entire length of the substitution box.

So how does this relate to cutting off the fast break? By optimizing substitution procedures, defenses acquire the ability to set up shop a few seconds earlier. In lacrosse, a matter of a few seconds can make the difference between a defensive stop and a goal. All an offense needs is a little sliver of time to exploit a man up advantage in transition. Maximizing substitution efficiency helps to terminate this window of opportunity before it even develops into a real issue.

Greater Specialization of Players (Offensive Middies versus Defensive Middies)

In addition, the capacity to substitute on the fly has further promoted positional specialization in the sport of lacrosse.

Since teams don’t have to squander time waiting for a dead ball to get their desired personnel onto the field, coaches have free range as to what types of players to put on the field for particular game situations. Consequently, coaches have gravitated toward categorizing players as offensive specialists or defensive specialists, specifically at the midfield position.

In the early days of lacrosse, midfielders were expected to play at both ends of the field. They weren’t confined to exclusively playing defense or exclusively playing offense. But as teams began to realize the untapped potential of substitution play, this area of lacrosse began to evolve.

Over time, the classification of offensive midfielders versus defensive midfielders has progressed into a staple feature of collegiate and professional level lacrosse. Even high school teams are starting to adopt this model as the years go by because it is such a convenient strategy to implement.

Thus, whenever the offense gives up possession to the opponent, the offensive midfielders are already sprinting back toward the substitution box to switch out for the defensive midfielders.

This same concept applies to defensive midfielders. Once the ball has been cleared to the offensive zone, the defensive midfielders rotate off so that the offensive midfielders can do what they do best.

It only takes a few seconds to completely switch out the player personnel on the field, so why wouldn’t you execute these substitutions?

Recent Rule Changes Regarding Substitution Procedure

The lacrosse community is always attempting to trend towards a fast-paced, dynamic style of play to attract more viewers and increase its popularity. To accomplish this goal, the NCAA men’s lacrosse committee has recently instituted a new rule regarding the substitution procedure.

I mentioned before that the substitution box at the youth and high school level is twenty yards in length. Collegiate lacrosse also used to have a substitution box of this length, that is, until recently.

The NCAA reduced the length of the substitution box from twenty yards to ten yards, along with a host of other rule changes to make the game more spectator friendly.

By minimizing the dimensions of the substitution box, the NCAA men’s lacrosse committee believes that this “may allow for more transition opportunities” (source).

This is in line with what we discussed previously. A lengthier substitution box grants the defense a significantly improved chance at beating the offense to the punch. With a shorter substitution box, defenses are not able to make up nearly as much ground as before, which will allow the seed of a fast break to sprout uncontested.

How Often Do Lacrosse Players Substitute?

Now that you know how substitution works, you likely want to know how often teams actually substitute their players.

Player substitutions happen every couple of minutes in lacrosse. However, certain positions substitute on a much more frequent basis compared to others.

Midfielders are predominantly responsible for the majority of substitutions that take place simply because they do the most running. Attackmen and defensemen rarely ever substitute off of the field to take breaks. They are able to take their breaks when the ball is on the other end of the field. Goalkeepers almost never come out the game.

The rate at which players rotate is also dependent on how aggressive the team plays. As a general rule of thumb, the more aggressive a team is, the more substitutions they need to keep up with this exhausting style of play.

Earlier, we discussed the emergence of positional specialization. Teams that place a heavier emphasis on positional specialization are likely to substitute more often to get their desired personnel on the field. A team that utilizes the same midfielders on offense and defense doesn’t need to substitute nearly as much as a team that divvies up the midfielders into offensive and defensive specialists.

Is There a Limit to How Many Substitutions You Can Make?

In addition, you are probably wondering whether there is a fixed limit to how many substitutions that a team can make per game.

Lacrosse teams can make as many player substitutions as they so desire. There is not a maximum value of substitutions that they must legally follow.

However, this is not to say that teams substitute personnel every single play. If a team were to substitute every time that the ball shifted field halves, they would be unable to take advantage of potential transitional opportunities. Successful fast break are initiated by the ball movement of defensive personnel. They are the ones that quickly ferry the ball down the field and create an advantageous scoring situation for the team.

So although teams are allowed to rotate players every time the ball changes hands, this would not be a beneficial long term strategy. In my opinion, there is such thing as over-substitution. With the institution of the shot clock rule at the collegiate and professional level, teams are beginning to encourage their players to diversify their skill sets because they cannot always substitute on their preferred clientele. Sometimes, it is up to the current players on the field to improvise.

Tips to Remember When Performing Substitutions

With all of the mechanics of the substitution procedure out of the way, I will leave you with some final tips to ensure that you are making full use of the advantages that substitution has to offer.

Communicate with Your Teammates to Avoid Confusion

Failing to communicate is one of the worst possible things that you could do when subbing into the game. You and your teammates need to be on the same page, whether they be on the field or on the sideline.

As a midfielder, one thing I used to do in the substitution box with the rest of my line mates was communicate who was 1, 2, and 3. This was our code to determine who would go onto the field first, second, and third. This way, we knew exactly who was going onto the field when. Doing this small little task minimized the chance of all of us venturing onto the field at once and drawing a worthless penalty.

In short, talk with your teammates. Come up with your own sub system. Tell your teammates, “I’ll come out for (so and so), you take out (so and so).” Trust me, establishing this communication early on is absolutely key.

Hustle On and Off the Field At All Times

In addition, you should be running at a dead sprint when you are subbing onto the field and off of the field.

Our coach used to preach this to us all the time, yelling “RUN THROUGH THE BOX!” I didn’t understand it at the time, but it made a lot more sense as I accrued more experience. Every second of game time is precious in this sport. Each time you saunter on and off the field, you leave your team in a vulnerable position for just a few seconds longer.

I absolutely despised the times where I knew that I was the one responsible for letting up a goal due to my own selfishness and laziness. I’m not saying I was perfect, but I did my best to hustle on and off through the substitution box where I could. These small efforts add up over time and may even earn you some respect from teammates in the long term.

Final Thoughts

Player substitutions is an overlooked facet of lacrosse that carries greater significance than many players believe. Teams can use substitutional plays in their favor to thwart the fast break and put the most capable players out on the field. The lacrosse community is beginning to realize the importance of substitution, which is why they are installing new rules to reflect their values of speedy and dynamic play.

So next time you sub on, try to optimize the rotation as much as you can. Those couple of precious seconds might make all the difference in the game when the final horn sounds.

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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