Is Lacrosse More Physical than Football? (Ending the Debate)


If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing a lacrosse game, you know that it’s a physical sport. However, since many people are unfamiliar with the rules regarding contact in lacrosse, they often wonder how this element of physicality stacks up to other contact heavy sports, like football.

Although lacrosse is a contact sport, it’s not as physical as football. Lacrosse is centered around speed and finesse, whereas football is centered around strength and brute physicality. Nonetheless, lacrosse players do need to have an element of physicality to perform well during games.

Both lacrosse and football place emphasis on physical contact, but to varying degrees. To prove that football is more physical than lacrosse, it is necessary to take a look at the different kinds of contact in each sport and perform an objective side-by-side comparison. Read until the end to see how the contact-related injury rates of football measure up to those in lacrosse.

Why Football is More Physical than Lacrosse

With lacrosse and football both being contact sports, it’s only natural for athletes to be curious as to which sport boasts the largest element of contact. Having played both sports myself, I can say with certainty that football is the clear winner when it comes down to pure physicality.

Physical Contact Happens at a Higher Frequency in Football

The major reason for this is that contact is a given with each and every play in football. Players clash and collide every time that the ball is snapped, regardless of their position. There’s no such thing as a football play where players aren’t smashing into each other.

The battle between the offensive linemen and the defensive linemen is a fixed constant throughout the entire game. As soon as the play goes live, defensive linemen explode out of their stance straight into the offensive linemen. The offensive linemen, in turn, do everything within their power to hold their ground. This is one form of contact that fails to waver.

In lacrosse, contact isn’t nearly as much of a guarantee. Defenders are not allowed to physically contact players off-ball to a large degree, otherwise they risk drawing a penalty. For this reason, contact is typically limited to the ball carrier and any on-ball defenders.

The only times where physical contact is allowed to any considerable extent off-ball is when there’s a loose ball on the field and players are trying to outmaneuver each other for possession.

Lacrosse Contact Has More to Do with Technicality than Brute Force

In addition, the underlying purpose for contact differs between the two sports. Although lacrosse defenses do rely on physical contact to pressure ball carriers, these collisions are much more technical.

Lacrosse defenders contact opposing ball carriers for the purpose of dislodging the ball and forcing the opponent off of their intended path. Football defenders contact opposing ball carriers for the sole purpose of delivering a blow that’s forceful enough to knock them on the ground.

Since lacrosse players aren’t actively trying to slam players onto the ground, they don’t have to direct all of their physical strength into colliding with the other player. It’s far more crucial for them to concern themselves with the accuracy and timing of their checks rather than concentrating on brute force.

The Play Structure of Football Favors Physicality More So Than Lacrosse

Plus, it’s important to note that football is a game that revolves around brief, explosive bursts of strength. Each play typically only lasts a couple seconds. In this short span of time, football players are expected to physically clash with one another at maximum effort. They can rest once the whistle has blown and play has stopped.

In lacrosse, the play is not nearly as condensed. Play continues with few interruptions, as players run up and down the field as possession moves back and forth between teams.

During these transition periods, players are rarely contacting one another. They’re merely focused on properly positioning themselves for the upcoming play. Since possession bounces between teams so frequently in lacrosse, there are plenty of times where contact is not a major concern for players.

For this reason, physical contact is encouraged way more in football compared to lacrosse.

Types of Physical Contact in Football

The superior physicality of football over lacrosse is also evident in the types of contact present within these sports. The main types of physical contact in football all involve body-to-body collisions with opponents brute acts of strength, as described below.

Tackling

When people think of physicality in sports, the first thing that usually pops into mind is the art of tackling. Tackling is arguably the greatest showmanship of physicality there is on the athletic stage.

When football players set their sights on tackling, they only have one goal in mind—to hit with a force hard enough to knock the other player down to the ground.

Although coaches do their very best to teach fundamental tackling technique, defensive players will bring down opposing ball carriers by any means necessary if they have to. They’ll grab at the ankles, lock an opponent down with their arms, and come careening in at a full sprint straight into the ball carrier. This is the essence of what player physicality is all about. It’s one player versus another to see who has the strength to come out on top.

Blocking

Another prominent physical skill in football is blocking. With blocking, football players try to force defensive players back and prevent them from tackling the ball carrier.

To be a solid blocker, offensive players need to get physical. There’s no way that a player can skirt around the issue of physicality when it comes to blocking. Without physicality, the opposing defensive player will easily slip past their guard and tackle their teammate.

In sports, it doesn’t get much more physical than purposefully trying to push another player away with as much force as humanly possible.

Blitzing

Blitzing is the antithesis of blocking. While offensive players attempt to block opponents from having a free shot at a tackle, defensive players attempt to drive these blockers out of their way to get to the ball carrier.

The act of blitzing also involves a large degree of physicality in that defensive players must use their weight and strength to bull into opposing blockers to afford themselves an opportunity at the tackle. There aren’t very many rules governing this sort of physical contact, so players are given a lot of leeway to use whatever physical skills they have at their disposal.

Speed and agility do play prominent roles in blitzing, but these athletic skills pale in comparison to the role that physicality plays in the act of blitzing.

Types of Physical Contact in Lacrosse

Practically every form of physical contact in football involves forcing players to the ground or forcing players out of of the way. Lacrosse shares certain similarities to the physical contact in football, but the physical contact is more of a means to achieve some overarching goal rather than serving as the overarching goal itself.

Stick Checking

One particular area of lacrosse that makes the physical element so unique is defensive stick checking.

At first glance, it appears as though defensive players are allowed to hack ball carriers with no regard as to where their stick checks land or how much harm is being done to the opponent. If you look closely, however, you will realize that defensemen throw their stick checks in a calculated manner, specifically on the opponent’s stick and gloves.

Defensemen utilize stick checks to disrupt the opponent’s stick handling ability. This ultimately results in the offense’s inability to create scoring opportunities and the potential for generating turnovers.

It is not the intent of defensemen to bring their opponent to the ground with hard, forceful stick checks. This high level of physicality is reserved for football tackling. Instead, defensive players simply want to put pressure on opposing ball carriers to hasten their decision making and force them into making mistakes.

Body Checking

The other major form of physical contact initiated by lacrosse defensemen is body checking.

With this type of physical contact, defensive players hold their hands together on their lacrosse stick and aggressively push ball carriers off of their intended course. Body checks are an effective means of disrupting dodges, passes, and shots, especially when the opposing ball carrier is in close proximity to the goal.

It’s important to mention that body checks are used sparingly. Defensemen rarely use body checks when the opposing ball carrier fails to present themselves as a threat. Only when the opposing ball carrier actively tries to dodge and get to a certain area on the field is the body check used.

A lacrosse body check is not the same thing as a football tackle. Lacrosse defenders are not allowed to hold or grab an opponent and throw them to the ground. They’re only permitted to push opponents on the front or side of the body with their gloves firmly together on the lacrosse stick. Any semblance of tackling in lacrosse will immediately warrant a penalty from the officials.

Bull Dodging

Defensemen aren’t the only ones to initiate contact in lacrosse. Occasionally, ball carriers bring the fight to the defensemen by driving them backward and imposing their will to reach a certain area on the field.

When an offensive player uses their body as leverage to drive a defender out of their way, it’s called a bull dodge. The bull dodge has been one of the more controversial areas of lacrosse in that the lacrosse rules committee is still trying to define the rules of engagement that govern this lacrosse maneuver. As a result, the way the bull dodge is called hasn’t been the model of consistency in recent years.

Typically, bull dodging involves lowering your shoulder. Some lacrosse officials consider this move to be legal, whereas other officials consider it to be illegal. At the youth level, bull dodging is largely prohibited. Professional lacrosse leagues, however, usually let this physical contact slide.

Pro lacrosse player, Myles Jones, is the king of getting away with physical contact. If you want evidence, just take a look at the first play from his highlight tape below.

Although physical contact isn’t the primary reason why people watch lacrosse, there are flashes of superior physicality from time to time, as shown in the clip above.

Why Do Lacrosse Players Wear More Protective Equipment than Football Players?

Now that we’ve established that football emphasizes more physicality than lacrosse, you’re probably curious as to why lacrosse players wear more protective equipment than football players.

First off, let’s take a look at the exact equipment requirements of each sport. The table below outlines all of the protective lacrosse equipment versus all of the protective football equipment.

Protective Lacrosse EquipmentProtective Football Equipment
HelmetHelmet
MouthguardMouthguard
Shoulder PadsShoulder Pads
Protective CupProtective Cup
Arm Pads
Gloves

Upon detailed examination, you will find that the only additional protective equipment that lacrosse players wear are the arm pads and gloves. Other than that, all the equipment standards are the same.

Lacrosse players wear extra equipment along the arms and hands to safeguard against defensive stick checks. As aforementioned, defensemen apply hard stick checks to an opponent’s stick in an attempt to dislodge the ball.

Sometimes, these defensive stick checks incidentally smack the hands and arms more so than the stick. A metal shaft colliding with hands and arms that are completely unprotected is a recipe for disaster. For this reason, lacrosse players are forced to wear gloves and arm pads to minimize the risk of injury.

Since football players are not dealing with the prospect of a metal shaft impacting their hands and arms, there’s no need for them to wear this equipment. It would only impede their ability to perform on the field.

Football Injury Rates versus Lacrosse Injury Rates

Unfortunately, an emphasis on physicality in sports is usually accompanied by an increase in injury rates. With players constantly colliding and delivering body blows to one another, there are bound to be instances where things don’t go as planned, resulting in incidental harm.

Thus, when people compare the physical elements of football and lacrosse, the topic of injury is always a source of intrigue. People want to know how the injury rates compare across these two different contact sports.

Fortunately, the NCAA also carries a strong interest in this area, as they want to do everything within their power to promote player safety above all else. For this reason, the NCAA has devoted a considerable amount of time and resources to investigating injury rates in both football and lacrosse.

To accurately compare the likelihood of injury in football versus lacrosse, it’s necessary to take a look at injury rates rather than the total amount of injuries per season. Since football has more participants than lacrosse, comparing the total amount of injuries per season offer skewed results.

The most notable statistic that compares the injury rates across these two contact sports is the number of injuries per 1,000 athlete exposures. In the following studies, an athlete exposure is defined as any time that a player was involved with either a practice or game.

The injury rate in NCAA football is 8.1 injuries per 1,000 athlete exposures, whereas the injury rate in NCAA lacrosse is 5.29 injuries per 1,000 athlete exposures.

(source 1 & Source 2)

From this information, we can reasonably conclude that there are generally more injuries in football compared to lacrosse. This is due in large part to the greater emphasis on physical contact in football relative to lacrosse.

Even though football has more injuries on average, the nature of these injuries are very similar to that of lacrosse. According to the NCAA football injury study, lower limb injuries accounted for 50.4% of all players injuries (source). In the NCAA lacrosse injury study, injuries to the lower extremities accounted for 58.3% of all injuries (source).

These statistics are eerily similar, demonstrating that the effects of sports physicality may have a direct correlation with lower leg injuries.

Fortunately, concussions only accounted for a fairly small percentage of injuries in both sports. Only 7.4% of football player injuries were concussions (source). The NCAA lacrosse study had similar numbers, in that concussions accounted for 7.4% of injuries in competition and 4.2% of injuries in practice (source).

These dwindling concussion percentages are a very good sign. Hopefully, these positive trends will only continue onwards in the future.

As a side note, keep in mind that these studies were performed recently, but there will likely be more injury studies coming out in the near future. The NCAA football injury study documented injuries from the 2004/2005 season to the 2008/2009 season. The NCAA lacrosse injury study recorded more recent data, documenting injuries from the 2009/2010 season to the 2014/2015 season.

Although these numbers are about as reliable as it gets, the current injury rates may not exactly reflect what these studies present.

The Bottom Line

Put simply, football is more physical than lacrosse. Although lacrosse does involve a considerable amount of contact relative to other sports, this still does not compare to the physicality of football.

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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