How to Play Lacrosse: An Illustrated Beginner’s Guide


You’ve developed an interest in lacrosse, but you don’t know where to start. Right now, picking up this sport as a beginner probably seems like a massive undertaking. Fortunately, simplifying this challenge into attainable short-term goals makes this process a whole lot easier.

You can learn how to play lacrosse by following these basic steps:

  • Learn the basic fundamentals.
  • Familiarize yourself with the rules of the game.
  • Get to know the equipment.
  • Decide which position you want to play.

We will explore exactly how to accomplish each of these steps for the remainder of the article. Read until the end to jumpstart your lacrosse journey and avoid wasting time by making unnecessary mistakes.

Step 1: Learn the Basic Fundamentals

There are a few universal skills in lacrosse that every single player must be familiar with in order to thrive. The very first thing you want to do as a lacrosse beginner is develop a basic grasp of these skills. Learning these fundamentals will take time, but it is essential for your growth as a player.

Before you delve into these skills, however, it’s necessary to know the three basic components of a lacrosse stick:

  • Lacrosse Head – The hard plastic located at the top of the lacrosse head that acts as the structural framework for the stick’s netting.
  • Lacrosse Pocket – The woven assemblage of stringing threads where the ball physically rests in the lacrosse stick.
  • Lacrosse Shaft – The long, sturdy pole that makes up the majority of the lacrosse stick’s length.

These various parts of the lacrosse stick will be referenced regularly in the subsequent sections. This terminology will help to more clearly convey the instructions on how to perform specific lacrosse maneuvers.

Learn How to Hold a Lacrosse Stick

All of the skills described below involve the same relative hand orientation for gripping the lacrosse stick.

First off, you should know that players can only grip the lacrosse shaft and the end cap (attached at the shaft’s bottom end). Players cannot touch the plastic of the lacrosse head or the strings of the lacrosse pocket during live gameplay. Players are also forbidden from contacting the ball directly with their hands. They can only contact the ball indirectly with their lacrosse stick.

Your hands should be oriented so that they’re “mixed” or “alternated” whenever you hold a lacrosse stick. In other words, one hand will be gripping in an overhand fashion, while the other hand will be gripping in an underhand fashion.

Your dominant hand should be oriented in an overhand fashion, whereas your non-dominant hand should be oriented in an underhand fashion.

As a general rule of thumb, your non-dominant hand should remain close to the bottom of the lacrosse shaft for virtually all of these basic lacrosse maneuvers. Your dominant hand will typically hover around the middle of the shaft, but this position may change depending on what lacrosse maneuver you intend to perform.

Learn How to Cradle

Cradling is how players keep the ball in their lacrosse stick as they move around on the field. This movement takes advantage of the centripetal force by holding the ball within the netting of the lacrosse stick.

You can perform this basic maneuver by doing the following:

  • Place your dominant hand at the top of the lacrosse shaft (just underneath the plastic of the head) in an underhand fashion.
  • Place your non-dominant hand at the bottom of the lacrosse shaft in an overhand fashion.
  • Lightly grasp the lacrosse shaft with your non-dominant hand, holding it in the same position in space.
  • Use your dominant hand to curl the lacrosse stick toward you and then away from you.
  • Repeat this process. Gradually work on curling the wrists (in addition to the arms) as you make progress.

A visual demonstration of these steps is shown in the clip below.

Learn How to Pass

Passing is how lacrosse players move the ball from one teammate to another. Players can do this by tossing the ball through the air, bouncing it on the ground, or rolling it along the field surface. Though, passing the ball directly through the air is by far the most prevalent method.

Basic throwing mechanics consist of the subsequent steps:

  • Place your dominant hand just below the middle of the lacrosse shaft in an underhand fashion.
  • Place your non-dominant hand at the bottom of the lacrosse shaft in an overhand fashion.
  • Orient your body sideways, so the shoulder on your non-dominant side is pointing toward the target.
  • Lift the bottom of the lacrosse shaft upwards with your non-dominant hand until the end cap is facing your intended target.
  • In one swift motion, push the lacrosse shaft toward your target with the top hand while concurrently pulling the lacrosse shaft toward yourself with the bottom hand.
  • Follow through by snapping your top hand’s wrist toward the target.

A visual demonstration of these steps is shown in the clip below.

Learn How to Catch

Catching is how players ensure that a teammate’s oncoming pass successfully reaches the pocket of their lacrosse stick and stays there.

Similar to passing, a push-pull mechanism is the basis of the catching motion. The only difference is that it’s in the inverse order of passing:

  • Position your dominant hand up near the top of the lacrosse shaft in an underhand fashion.
  • Position your non-dominant hand near the bottom of the lacrosse shaft in an overhand fashion.
  • Orient the lacrosse stick so that it’s aligned vertically relative to the ground.
  • Turn the open face of the lacrosse head in the direction of the oncoming pass to take full advantage of its catching surface area.
  • Slant the lacrosse head slightly forward in the direction of the oncoming pass.
  • As soon as the ball makes contact with the pocket, use your top hand to pull the lacrosse shaft inward while concurrently using your bottom hand to push the lacrosse shaft outward.
  • Maintaining a light grip on the lacrosse shaft is key to preventing the ball from inadvertently bouncing out of the pocket.

A visual demonstration of these steps is shown in the clip below.

Learn How to Scoop

The art of scooping is how players pick up loose balls on the ground that have yet to be possessed by either team. This skill is much harder than it looks, since it’s difficult to both judge a ground ball’s direction and navigate through the throng of players competing for possession.

You can scoop up ground balls more effectively by doing the following:

  • Place your dominant hand at the top of the lacrosse shaft (just below the head plastic) with an underhand grip.
  • Place your non-dominant hand at the bottom of the lacrosse shaft with an overhand grip.
  • Sprint to the loose ball.
  • Step next to the ball with the foot on your dominant hand’s side.
  • Bend at the knees, sinking your bottom low to the ground.
  • Orient your lacrosse stick so it is aligned horizontally, parallel with the ground.
  • Scoop through the ball in one fluid motion.
  • Bring your lacrosse head up toward your head once you’ve gathered the ball for added stick protection.
  • Sprint to open field.

A visual demonstration of these steps is shown in the clip below.

Learn How to Shoot

Shooting is how players combine both power and accuracy to sneak the ball past the goalkeeper and into the back of the net for a score. The mechanics for passing and shooting are slightly different, so that offensive players can generate additional force behind the ball.

To enhance both your shooting power and accuracy, do the following:

  • Position your top hand an inch or two below the middle of the lacrosse shaft with an underhand grip.
  • Position your bottom hand at the bottom of the lacrosse shaft with an overhand grip.
  • Line yourself up sideways so that your non-dominant shoulder is pointing toward the goal.
  • Broaden your foot stance slightly beyond shoulder’s width.
  • Extend both arms out and away from your body.
  • Look at the goal and tuck your chin into your non-dominant shoulder.
  • Engage the core and forcefully rotate your upper torso toward the goal.
  • Step toward the goal with your non-dominant leg as you start to rotate.
  • Heave your arms in a top arc towards the goal.
  • Follow through by snapping your top hand’s wrist toward the goal.

A visual demonstration of these steps is shown in the clip below.

Learn How to Check

Checking is the means by which defensive players dislodge the ball from an opponent’s stick to turn the ball back over to the offense. Although strong body positioning takes precedence over checking, it is a useful skill to apply pressure on the opposing offense.

There are two main types of stick checks:

  • Body Check – Used to shove an opposing ball carrier off of their path toward the goal.
  • Stick Check – Disrupts an opposing players stick handling ability by applying pressure to either the hands or the lacrosse stick itself.

The basic steps of throwing a defensive check are outlined below:

  • Assume an athletic stance with bent knees, a wide base, and a low center of gravity.
  • Match feet with your opponent, keeping an eye on their hips as opposed to their lacrosse stick.
  • To perform a body check, slide your hands close together on the lacrosse shaft and forcefully push the ball carrier away on the front or side of their body.
  • To perform a stick check, thrust the head of your lacrosse stick toward the opposing player’s gloves or lacrosse stick to interfere with their cradling ability.

You can find helpful beginner tips on how to better perform these basic lacrosse maneuvers by visiting 7 Fundamental Skills That You Need to Play Lacrosse.

Step 2: Familiarize Yourself with the Rules of the Game

Once you’ve mastered the universal skills needed for lacrosse, it’s time to move on to improving your lacrosse IQ. You may feel overwhelmed at first by all the underlying rules that govern this sport, but you will begin to develop a feel for the game as you continue to expose yourself to lacrosse.

Without further ado, let’s delve into the rules!

The Object of Lacrosse

The primary goal of lacrosse is for your team to score more goals than the opposing team. Whichever team scores the most goals wins.

How Lacrosse Players Score

Players score by shooting the ball past the opposing goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Goals only count if the ball completely crosses the goal line. One goal is equivalent to one point.

Players do not need to hold the ball for a specified period of time or pass the ball a certain number of times before attempting to score. Whenever a player has the ball, they’re always a threat to score.

There’s an area encircling each goal where offensive players are not permitted. This restricted area is called the crease. Only defensive players may enter this area.

Offensive players can shoot from anywhere on the field besides the crease. Players can also shoot the ball in any manner that they prefer. They can shoot high or low, underhand or overhand, standing still or on the run… it’s ultimately up to preference!

How Lacrosse Games are Formatted

The standard format of a lacrosse game is four quarters, with each quarter lasting a total of 12 minutes in length and a halftime intermission.

Lacrosse games always begin with a face-off. During a face-off, two players square off at the center of the field with the ball centered between them. When the referee blows the whistle, each of these players attempts to win possession with their physical strength and quickness.

Face-offs also occur after every scored goal and at the start of every quarter, so they’re fairly prevalent during a game.

Additional information on face-off procedure can be found here at The Lacrosse Face-Off: Everything That You Need to Know.

If regulation time ends with both teams tied, the game continues with an overtime period to settle the victor. Each overtime periods last four minutes. The first team to score wins the game.

How Lacrosse Teams are Organized

Each lacrosse team is only authorized to have 10 players on the field at any point during the game. These players are classified under the following positions:

  • 3 Attackmen – These players typically remain on the offensive end. Their primary responsibility is to score goals.
  • 3 Midfielders – Players at this position run all over the field, since they have been assigned the laborious task of playing both offense and defense.
  • 3 Defensemen – Occupying the defensive end, their job is to keep scoring to a minimum and shift possession back to the offense.
  • 1 Goalkeeper – This player verbally organizes the defense and blocks opposing shots from traveling into the goal.

Additional information on the main responsibilities and functionalities of each lacrosse position can be found at The 4 Major Lacrosse Positions: A Beginner’s Guide.

Along with the 10 players on the field, lacrosse rosters also have several reserve players. A standard lacrosse roster consists of 22 to 23 players, with backups at each position.

How Offense Works in Lacrosse

The primary objective of the offense is to put the ball in the back of the opponent’s net.

Ball carriers have the capacity to pass the ball to teammates whenever they like. On the other hand, ball carriers may also keep the ball for as long as they please. They can cradle the ball and run around the field freely.

Although players don’t have to pass the ball, it is to their benefit to do so. Not only does it reduce the amount of checks that a player takes, it also keeps the defense guessing as to what the offense will do next. Most offenses emphasize a balanced mix of passing between teammates and dodging past defenders to create open scoring opportunities.

How Defense Works in Lacrosse

The primary objective of the defense is to prevent the opposing team from scoring on their goal. Defensemen do this by obstructing the intended path of offensive players and applying physical pressure to ball carriers.

Lacrosse is a contact sport and defensemen take full advantage of this contact legality. We analyzed the basic mechanics of body checking and stick checking earlier, but you should know that there are certain rules governing this physical contact.

Players may only check the front or side of an opponent’s body. Any check to the head, neck, back, or legs will be penalized. Furthermore, any particularly reckless or violent checks will be met with penalty. Defensive checks are meant to be technical in nature, not vicious.

In addition to body checking and stick checking, players may also block passes and shots with their lacrosse stick or their own body.

How Penalties Work in Lacrosse

There are three main ways that a player can be penalized after a foul has been committed:

  • possession is turned over to the opposing team
  • offending player is briefly suspended from play
  • offending player is disqualified for the remainder of the game

Typically, a player that violates the rules is temporarily suspended from play. Their team is forced to play without them in a 9 versus 10 situation, more commonly known as man-down.

The length of this temporary suspension is contingent upon the severity of the violation itself. The severity of the violation also influences how strictly this suspension from play will be enforced:

  • Releasable Penalty – This penalty is reserved for minor infractions. If the opposing team scores while the offending player is still in the penalty box, the time remaining on the penalty is voided and the player is free to re-enter the game.
  • Unreleasable Penalty – This type of penalty is issued for more severe violations. The offending player must serve out the entire duration of their penalty time, without any opportunity for early release. It doesn’t matter whether or not the opposing team scores.

The subject of lacrosse violations is explored in greater detail, with in-depth analyses of individual fouls, at How Penalties Work in Lacrosse: A Helpful, Illustrated Guide.

How Substitutions Work in Lacrosse

Player substitutions are done much in the same way as hockey, with bench players replacing active players on the fly in a designated substitution area. In other words, the clock does not need to be stopped for reserve players to substitute on the field. Though, it’s important to know that substitutions can be made during dead-ball situations, such as an injury time-out.

It’s also worth noting that teams can make as many substitutions as they want, so long as they enter and exit through the designated substitution box during live gameplay.

More advanced concepts, including complex substitution tips and strategies, are discussed further in How Substitutions Work in Lacrosse: A Detailed Guide.

Step 3: Get to Know the Equipment

Now that you’re well acquainted with the basic rules of the game, you can shift your attention to learning both the function and importance of each piece of lacrosse gear.

With lacrosse being a contact sport, there’s a fair amount of mandatory protective equipment involved, as depicted in the image below.

  • Helmet – Safeguards against concussions and other head-related injury.
  • Mouth Guard – Protects the teeth, tongue, lips, and jaw from injury.
  • Shoulder Pads – Cushions the upper torso from defensive checks.
  • Arm Pads – Shields the elbows from forcible contact.
  • Gloves – Protects the hands from hard defensive checks.
  • Lacrosse Stick – Primary means by which players interact with the ball.
  • Cleats – Provides superior traction on grass and turf.
  • Pinnie – Scrimmage vest that visually indicates to other players what team you’re on.
  • Protective Cup – Shields the groin area from severe injury.

Special Goalkeeping Equipment

Lacrosse goalies must use special equipment to further protect themselves from fast-moving shots.

For one, the head of their lacrosse stick covers a much larger surface area, which assists with shot saves. Furthermore, goalies must also wear a throat protector attached to their helmet to cover their neck region. In place of standard issue shoulder pads, goalies wear padded chest protectors to better absorb the force of oncoming shots.

Goalies have the option of forgoing elbow pads to better react to opposing shots. Since most goalies choose to go this route, they technically wear the least amount of protective equipment out of all the lacrosse positions!

Not All Lacrosse Sticks are Built the Same

If you’ve ever watched a lacrosse game before, you may have noticed that some lacrosse players carry short sticks whereas other players carry long sticks. Since each lacrosse position has different tasks and responsibilities, the specifications of these lacrosse sticks vary to reflect these differences:

Lacrosse PositionTotal Stick LengthShaft LengthHead LengthHead Width
Attack40 – 42″30″10″6 – 10″
Midfield40 – 42″30″10″6 – 10″
Defense52 – 72″60″10″6 – 10″
Goalie40 – 72″40″16.5″10 – 12″

This may be a bit difficult to mentally visualize, so here’s a picture of the different lacrosse sticks compared side-by-side:

If you would like to know more about how lacrosse sticks differ from each other, read through Are All Lacrosse Sticks the Same Size? (Actual Measurements).

Step 4: Decide Which Position You Want to Play

Since lacrosse positions have different equipment needs, it is critical that you take the time to choose your desired position before purchasing your lacrosse gear. Otherwise, you may just end up wasting money on equipment that you don’t necessarily need.

To help streamline this process, check out the following pros and cons of each lacrosse position to see which type of play style appeals to you most.

Attack

ProsCons
receive a high volume of touches on offenseconstantly hounded with body checks and stick checks
control the pace of the gamematched up against skilled long stick defensemen
rarely have to play defenselong stints of inactivity if your team is losing the possession battle

Midfield

ProsCons
can have an impact on both ends of the fieldrun the most out of any lacrosse position
greatest opportunity to earn playing timemust be well-versed at virtually every lacrosse skill
given the most opportunity to fight for extra possessionsdifficult to keep track of all the offensive and defensive concepts

Defense

ProsCons
allowed to use physicality to push around opponentstakes time and effort to truly master defensive footwork
can legally slap opposing players with a metal stickmatched up against the most talented offensive scorers
play an integral part in delivering the ball back to the offensenot given many scoring opportunities

Goalie

ProsCons
have the privilege of commanding the entire team’s defenseleft battered and bruised by hard lacrosse shots
can turn the tide of the game with a few quality shot savesunder a considerable amount of pressure to make saves
not nearly as run-intensivecompetition for the singular starting spot can be stiff

If you’re still undecided as to which lacrosse position you want to play, you should know that the majority of newer lacrosse players start off at the midfield position to get a taste of both offense and defense. Plus, the midfield position allows newer players to obtain an all-around knowledge of how the sport works.

Once you’ve explored the midfield position and developed a firmer grasp of your lacrosse interests, then it will be considerably easier to make this choice.

Full disclosure, I started off at the midfield position myself. After a brief stint at attack for a season, I returned to the midfield position and have been playing there ever since.

Lacrosse positions aside, just make sure you get out of your comfort zone and pick up a stick! You won’t regret it.

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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