Rules of Field Lacrosse Explained: A Beginner’s Guide


If you’re curious about the sport of lacrosse and want to familiarize yourself with the game prior to taking that next step, learning the rules is the first place you should start. This may seem like a difficult undertaking, but lacrosse isn’t overly complicated.

Here are the key rules of field lacrosse:

  • The team that scores the most goals wins
  • Players score points by shooting the ball into the opposing net with a lacrosse stick
  • Players stop scoring by body checking, stick checking, and blocking passes/shots
  • Only 10 players per team can be on the field
  • Standard game format is four 12-minute quarters

Although the rules listed above provide a brief summary of how lacrosse is played, they don’t paint the full picture. Read further on to acquire a firm foundational knowledge of the game of lacrosse so that you’re equipped with all the tools necessary to start your lacrosse journey—or support a loved one as they begin their journey.

Object of the Game of Lacrosse

The object of lacrosse is to score the most goals by the time that the game clock expires.

Teams do not have to reach a fixed threshold of points nor do they have to win by a fixed margin. So long as one team is winning by at least a one-goal margin at the end of the game, the victor is decided.

How the Scoring Works in Lacrosse

Since the whole object of lacrosse is to score more goals than your opponent, it’s critical to have a thorough understanding of exactly how the scoring procedure is regulated.

How Do Lacrosse Players Score Goals?

Lacrosse is unique in that the players are prohibited from using their hands to touch the ball (with the exception of the goalkeeper). Instead, players must use a lacrosse stick to make plays with the ball, which includes shooting.

In order for a player to score a goal for their respective team, they must shoot the ball past the opposing goalkeeper and into the opponent’s net. The ball will have to fully cross the goal line, much like soccer. If it fails to do this, the goal will not count.

Moreover, players are restricted from venturing too close to the opposing net in an attempt to score. There’s a crease that surrounds each goal, which explicitly marks the territory that offensive players are not allowed to step into. If a player shoots the ball into the net while stepping into the crease, the goal will not count.

Players can shoot in a variety of locations while utilizing a myriad of techniques. For example, a player may shoot the ball overhand into the top corner of the goal. A player may also shoot the ball underhand, bouncing it past the goalkeeper into the net. This type of shooting diversity affords the offense the element of surprise and unpredictability.

How Many Points is a Goal Worth in Lacrosse?

Every goal scored by a lacrosse team counts for one point, regardless of how they shoot it or where they shoot it. There are no extra points awarded to players who shoot from a far distance away, like in basketball.

Even though goals only count for one point, youth and high school lacrosse teams still consistently score at or slightly above 10 goals per game. Though, there are exceptions where teams score much lower or much higher than this number.

The underlying reason behind why lacrosse scoring is so dynamic is because of the fast pace of play, the creative opportunities offensive players are given, and the size of the goals themselves. Speaking of which, that’s the next topic we need to address.

Goal Dimensions & Crease Dimensions

Field lacrosse players have the luxury of having a fair amount of open net to shoot on. The dimensions of a standard field lacrosse goal is provided below:

Type of DimensionStandard Field Lacrosse Goal Measurements
Height6 ft
Width6 ft
Length7 ft

It can be somewhat difficult to mentally visualize this in your head if you’ve never seen a lacrosse goal up close before, so here’s a picture of one up close:

To keep the game fair and ensure goalkeepers are entitled to their personal space, there are also regulations governing the dimensions of the crease. A legal crease has a diameter of exactly 18 ft. Creases must be perfectly circular, with each point on the crease being 9 ft from the center of the goal line.

How the Lacrosse Playing Field is Structured

The field of play in lacrosse is slightly larger than that of a football field. The dimensions of a football field versus a lacrosse field are compared in the following table (sources 1 & 2):

Type of FieldLengthWidth
Football Field100 yards53 1/3 yards
Lacrosse Field110 yards60 yards

The standard layout of a lacrosse field is depicted in the picture below:

If you would like to learn more about the underlying meaning behind these different field lines and sections, click over to Is Lacrosse Played on a Football Field? (+Exact Field Layout) for further details.

How Lacrosse Games are Formatted

As aforementioned, formal youth and high school lacrosse games are typically broken down into four quarters, with each quarter being 12 minutes in length. Similar to basketball and football, teams are given an intermission at halftime to recuperate and recover for the second half.

The clock only stops under the following circumstances:

  • ball goes out of bounds
  • ending of a quarter
  • foul call
  • injured player on the field
  • scored goal
  • timeout call

How Does a Lacrosse Game Begin?

Lacrosse games always begin with a face-off. This is a procedure by which two players (known as face-off specialists) square off at the center of the field, at what is known as the face-off X.

These players line up against one another, with the ball placed between them. As soon as the referee blows their whistle, these two players try to wrestle the ball away from their opponent by using a combination of speed, quickness, and physicality.

Not only is the face-off used to fairly determine possession at the start of the game, it’s also used to determine possession after every score throughout the game as well.

You can learn additional information about face-off rules by clicking over to The Lacrosse Face-Off: Everything You Need to Know.

How Does Overtime Work in Lacrosse?

If two teams end regulation time with a tied score, they enter a sudden victory overtime period. In other words, the first team to score wins.

The same general 10 versus 10 rules apply, though the overtime periods only last four minutes apiece. Teams will continue to play as many overtime periods as it takes for a clear victor to be decided.

How Lacrosse Teams are Structured

As stated earlier in the article, each team is only permitted to have 10 players on the field at any given time during the game.

The positional breakdown of these 10 players goes as follows:

  • 3 Attackmen – These players are stationed at the offensive half and primarily tasked with creating scoring opportunities for their respective team.
  • 3 Midfielders – These players run back and forth between field halves, playing both offense and defense.
  • 3 Defensemen – These players put a stop to any opposing scoring opportunities and create turnovers to get the ball back to the offense.
  • 1 Goalkeeper – This player serves the last line of defense, stopping any oncoming shots from crossing the goal line with either their lacrosse stick or body.

Of course, the tasks of the different lacrosse positions extend beyond the scope of the descriptions above, but this provides a general gist of what they do.

You can learn more about the different priorities and required skill sets of each lacrosse position by heading over to The 4 Major Lacrosse Positions: A Beginner’s Guide.

Since players are constantly on the move during the game, lacrosse rules do allow teams to have substitution reserves to keep players from becoming too exhausted.

Generally, a lacrosse roster has anywhere from 22 to 23 players total. Though, there are exceptions where a team’s total player count may lie above or below this standard.

Rules Governing Lacrosse Equipment

Being that lacrosse defenses primarily stifle opposing scoring opportunities through physical contact, lacrosse players must be outfitted with multiple pieces of equipment to minimize the likelihood of injury.

Here’s a comprehensive list of all the essential gear needed to play lacrosse:

  • Cleats – Grant players added traction on grass and turf fields. Metal cleats are prohibited.
  • Elbow Pads – Serve as a physical layer of protection between your elbow and opposing stick checks.
  • Gloves – Protects the hands from forceful stick checks, which are extremely prevalent in this sport.
  • Helmet – Reduces the chances of concussions. Know that checks to the helmet are completely illegal, but accidents do happen from time to time.
  • Lacrosse Stick – Central piece of equipment from which all basic lacrosse movements are based.
  • Mouthguard – Acts as a safety measure against dental-related injuries and also helps to reduce the severity of concussions.
  • Protective Cup – Safeguards the groin area from stray checks and shots.
  • Shoulder Pads – Provides a layer of padding across the upper torso, decreasing the impact of body checks and stick checks to this area.

Referees do conduct periodic equipment checks and stick checks throughout lacrosse games to assure that players are upholding the safety standards of the game. Teams that fail to meet these equipment guidelines will be penalized.

It’s also worth noting that the mandatory equipment for goalies differs slightly from that of field players.

Goalies must wear a throat guard and chest protector (in place of regular shoulder pads) to be better protected against oncoming shots. Strangely enough, goalies are not required to wear elbow pads, as they tend to disrupt their reaction speed during shot saves.

Rules Governing Team Offense in Lacrosse

In order for teams to score on offense, they need to be able to move the ball all over the field to different team members so that they have a variety of scoring options at their disposal.

How Do Lacrosse Players Move the Ball to Teammates?

Lacrosse rules state that players can pass the ball to each other, so long as the thrower and receiver use their lacrosse stick to catch and throw the ball.

Thus, players can pass the ball by throwing it directly through the air, bouncing it on the ground, and rolling it on the field surface in the direction of a teammate. Although all these options are legal, most players just opt to throw the ball through the air, as it’s the quickest and safest route of transferring possession.

Can Lacrosse Players Run with the Ball Themselves?

If passing is not an option, lacrosse players do have the ability to run up and down the field with the ball in their lacrosse stick.

There’s no set time limit on how long any one player can hold the ball. Though, it’s likely in the best interest of an offensive player to not hold the ball for too long, otherwise defenders will have a field day whacking them with their metal sticks.

If you’ve ever watched a lacrosse game before, you may have noticed that players running around with the ball do what seems like a “twirling” motion with their stick. This is called cradling. Although it’s not mandatory for players to cradle, it helps players retain possession since the constant rotation of the stick uses centripetal force to keep the ball stable in the pocket.

As a quick reference, pocket refers to the netting at the top of a lacrosse stick where the ball is meant to rest when a player has possession.

Rules Governing Team Defense in Lacrosse

The rules of lacrosse allow defenses to physically contact offensive players—with their body or lacrosse stick—in an attempt to dislodge the ball from the opponent’s stick. These contact guidelines are rather specific to dissuade any defenders from warping these rules to enact violence on another player.

Body Checking Rules

Contrary to popular opinion, body checking is the not the same thing as tackling.

A proper lacrosse body check involves a player putting their hands together on their lacrosse stick and physically pushing an opponent off of their intended path.

Tackling, on the other hand, involves players physically holding or grabbing an opponent and bringing them to the ground. This may be legal in football, but it’s outlawed in lacrosse and would be penalized accordingly.

The primary focus of the body check is to disrupt an opponent’s scoring path, stopping them from having an easy road to the goal. The main emphasis is on defensive positioning and footwork, as opposed to aggressively throwing an opponent to the ground.

Stick Checking Rules

As soon as newcomers to the sport learn of the allowance of physical contact, they automatically assume they can repeatedly hit offensive players with their lacrosse stick to no end. This is not the case.

Stick checks must be technical, directed at an opponent’s gloves or lacrosse stick to disturb their stick handling ability. The intent of a stick check is not to injure an opponent.

Consequently, any particularly reckless or violent checks will be met with severe penalty. For this reason, any player that takes a brash baseball-like swing at an opponent will be penalized because of the safety risks that come with such a reckless check.

Pass Blocking & Shot Blocking Rules

Lastly, defensemen may also disrupt opposing offenses by blocking both passes and shots. They may use their lacrosse stick or body to do so.

Though, it may be prudent for players to try to use their stick more than their body, since taking a high velocity shot or pass does hurt, no matter how much safety equipment a player may be wearing.

How Fouls Work in Lacrosse

Just like any other sport, there are consequences to be paid for breaking the rules. In lacrosse, teams that violate the rules are penalized in the following ways:

  • forfeiture of possession
  • temporary suspension from play
  • disqualification from the game

Forfeiture of possession generally apply to fouls committed by the offense, whereas temporary suspensions from play generally apply to fouls committed by the defense. Though, lacrosse players don’t call it a “temporary suspension from play.” They call it man-down.

What Does Man-Down Mean in Lacrosse?

Put simply, man-down means that a lacrosse team must temporarily play without one of their players on the field in a 9 versus 10 scenario.

During this time, the offending player must serve out their suspension time in what’s known as a penalty box.

Since the other team has an extra player on the field, the likelihood of them scoring rises exponentially under these circumstances.

This is why it’s so critical that lacrosse teams avoid penalties whenever possible, otherwise they may end up losing the game due to some unwise mistakes.

What are the Different Types of Fouls Called?

There is a distinct hierarchy of penalties in lacrosse, with minor fouls receiving the least punishment and major fouls receiving the most. This penalty hierarchy is described in greater detail below:

  • Releasable Penalty – Reserved for less serious infractions, the offending player must serve a short stint in the penalty box. Though, if the other team manages to score while this player is still in the penalty box, the remaining time in the penalty is wiped and the offending player is free to re-join the game.
  • Unreleasable Penalty – This type of penalty is issued for more serious transgressions. Under these circumstances, the offending player must remain in the penalty box for the entire duration of their time sentence, regardless of whether or not the other team scores.

If you would like to learn more about the details of standard penalty procedure, such as descriptions of specific lacrosse infractions, check out How Penalties Work in Lacrosse: A Helpful, Illustrated Guide.

How Substitutions Work in Lacrosse

We touched on it a bit earlier, but lacrosse players interchange with bench players often, as lacrosse is a very run-intensive game. Lacrosse substitutions work a lot like hockey in many ways.

For one, there’s no set limit to how many substitutions a team can make during the game. Players can come on and off the field as many times as they like.

Secondly, there’s no need for the clock to stop for lacrosse substitutions, since they’re executed on the fly. The only stipulation is that players must enter and exit through the designated substitution box, located on the sidelines.

If a player leaves the substitution box early, causing their team to have 11 players on the field at one time instead of 10, the offending team will be penalized.

This is not to say that dead-ball substitutions are not allowed. Dead-ball substitutions happen all the time, like after a time-out call or quarter intermission.

To learn everything there is to know about lacrosse substitutions—such as advanced substitution strategies used by competitive lacrosse clubs—read through How Substitutions Work in Lacrosse: A Detailed Guide.

Other Special Rules of Note in Field Lacrosse

On top of all the fundamental rules we’ve recently discussed, there are a few unconventional rules you should be aware of heading into a game. These rules may seem a bit strange at first, but you’ll soon grow used to them as you become more familiar with the game.

Determining Possession After a Shot Goes Out-of-Bounds

When the ball goes out-of-bounds, the ball is typically awarded to whichever team did not touch the ball last. For example, in the case of an errant pass thrown off the field or a ball carrier that’s pushed out of play, possession is awarded to the defending team.

In the case of a missed shot, however, a different set of out-of-bounds rules apply. Possession is awarded to whichever team is closest to where the shot went out of play. Thus, the offense can retain possession of the ball, even if one of their shots misses the mark.

This is the underlying reason why both offensive and defensive players race each other towards the end line once a shot misses the cage.

Offensive Restrictions with Under Two Minute to Go

In addition, there’s a special set of possession rules that apply when there is less than two minute left in the game.

Under these circumstances, if the possessing team is currently winning the game, the ball must remain within the cramped confines of the attacking area, as opposed to the entire half of the field. If the ball does leave the attacking area, possession is turned over to the other team due to a delay of game.

Since the offense is in such close quarters with the defense, this rule makes it more difficult for the offense to simply stall and run out the clock. Ultimately, this paves the way for more exciting finishes, as it offers the trailing team a chance to come back.

Field Lacrosse Rules vs. Box Lacrosse Rules

If this is your first real crack at lacrosse, you may not even be aware that there’s another popular version of the sport called box lacrosse. In short, box lacrosse is the indoor version of the game, whereas field lacrosse is the outdoor version.

However, there are other subtle differences you should be familiar with. The most prominent of which have been summed up in the following list:

  • Box Lacrosse Features Smaller Goals & a Smaller Field – The field of play in box lacrosse is much more confined, forcing players to be much quicker and more precise with their decision-making when they have the ball. The smaller goal dimensions also require players to be considerably more accurate with their shots.
  • Box Lacrosse Has Fewer Players in Play – Where field lacrosse is a 10 versus 10 game, box lacrosse is a 6 versus 6 game (including the goalie).
  • Box Lacrosse Has No Offsides Rules – In field lacrosse, teams cannot have any more than six players on their offensive field half and seven players (including the goalie) on their defensive field half. Certain players must remain stationed on certain field halves to meet his criteria. There are no such stipulations in box lacrosse.
  • Field Lacrosse Allows Long Sticks – Lacrosse is unique in that the equipment is specifically tailored toward different playing positions. For instance, defensive players can have a 52″ to 72″ lacrosse stick to have an extended reach for stick checks. In field lacrosse, four players may possess long sticks on the field at once, whereas box lacrosse players are restricted to short sticks only.

Special Rule Changes of Note in NCAA & PLL

At the more competitive tiers of lacrosse—such as the NCAA and the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL)—a few of the rules that you just recently learned have been altered to make the sport more fan-friendly. Often times, these rule changes favor a faster paced, higher scoring version of the sport.

Enforcement of a Shot Clock

One major difference is the presence of the shot clock. In youth and high school lacrosse, offenses are not under the pressure of a shot clock whatsoever, so they can be careful and deliberate with their scoring opportunities.

With college and professional level lacrosse, offenses have to exploit scoring opportunities quickly or risk forfeiting possession.

NCAA collegiate men’s lacrosse teams have 80 seconds to put a shot on goal on any given possession (source). PLL players have an even shorter amount of time to work with, as they’re only given 52 seconds to put a shot on goal (source).

Legalization of the Crease Dive

If you can recall, the crease is the area where offensive players are restricted from access, since allowing them so close to the net would give them a marked advantage over the goalkeeper.

As lacrosse players started getting more creative with their scoring methods, they began to experiment with the notion of jumping outside of the crease, shooting while in mid-air, scoring the goal, and then landing inside the crease. This maneuver quickly gained notoriety and became known as the “crease dive.”

At the younger levels, the crease dive is outlawed due to safety concerns. At the collegiate and professional level, however, this move is entirely legal, since it showcases the athleticism of the players and makes for highlight reel plays.

Presence of the 2-Point Arc

The last major point of difference you should know is that the PLL has a 15 yard 2-point arc surrounding each goal (source). As the name suggests, any player that shoots behind this 15 yard arc will be awarded with two points instead of the usual one.

This is a major game-changer, in that it spreads out the field for offensive plays and provides teams with a chance to overcome substantial scoring deficits. The hope is that the addition of this 2-point arc will eventually have the same effect on lacrosse as the 3-point arc did on basketball.

Plus, it makes the game that much more appealing to watch as a fan. It remains to be seen whether this experimental rule will trickle down to the other competitive tiers of lacrosse, such as the NCAA. Until then, only time will tell.

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5

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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