The face-off is an integral part of the game of lacrosse. At first glance, it may just seem like there are two opponents dueling against each other in the middle of the field. Although these two players are battling against each other in a one-on-one contest, it is not to settle some dispute.
The face-off is the procedure by which referees resume play after a goal has been scored or a quarter has ended. The face-off provides each team with a fair opportunity to vie for possession of the ball by pitting two players against each other at the center of the field.
That is just the basic gist of the lacrosse face-off. In order to fully understand the mechanics of the face-off, there are a couple of things that you need to take note of. Learning about the rules, positional players, specialized equipment, and general importance of the face-off is imperative to increasing your overall lacrosse IQ.
The General Purpose of Face-Offs
Every time that a goal is scored or the time expires for the quarter, game play stops. In order for referees to restart play in an impartial fashion, there needs to be a strategic, uniform procedure for them to follow.
This is where the lacrosse face-off comes into play. Rather than simply handing over possession to one team or another, referees initiate a procedure known as the face-off.
The face-off offers both teams a fair chance to earn possession of the ball. This makes lacrosse games much more exciting since it adds another variable to the sport. It allows teams to the opportunity to feed off of momentum and run away with the victory. It also provides teams a small window of opportunity to go on a run and come back from a large deficit.
This way, no lacrosse team is ever totally in the clear, even if they have a big lead. This benefits both lacrosse players and spectators since it makes the outcome of the game far less predictable.
How Face-Offs Generally Work
Each team selects one player to take the face-off. Each team must also assign two players to the wings that flank the face-off circle. Thus, each team has a total of three players involved in the face-off procedure.
The players at the center face-off circle are the ones that actually perform the face-off procedure itself. The players that run in from the wing areas are there to provide support for the actual face-off players.
The first priority of the face-off player is to attempt to acquire possession of the ball cleanly. This means that the player tries to snag the ball in the back of their lacrosse pocket, providing them with complete control as to where the ball will go on the field. The face-off player can either win the ball forward or backward to afford their team the best opportunity to scoop up the loose ball.
In the event that no face-off player is able to win the ball cleanly, the face-off typically results in a 50/50 loose ball scenario. The presence of the wing players essentially makes the face-off a 3v3 ground ball situation.
With this situation, it basically turns into a massive, chaotic scramble. Players are constantly boxing each other out, stick checking the opposition, and trying to locate the loose ball among the turmoil. It is extremely hard to judge which team will come out with possession of the ball under these circumstances.
The attackers and defenders cannot get involved with the ground ball battle until possession is firmly established. They must remain behind the restraining line until the referee explicitly signals that a team has acquired possession.
Some standard examples of how a lacrosse face-off is performed are shown in the video below:
Which Players Perform the Face-Off?
At the youth level of lacrosse, there is not really a designated player that takes the face-off simply because every player is still relatively inexperienced. Any player that is willing to learn the fundamentals of the face-off can typically volunteer.
At the more competitive rungs of lacrosse, there is a specific position exclusively tailored toward taking face-offs. This position is called Face-Off Get Off, more commonly referred to as FOGO.
The central responsibility of the FOGO is to win the face-off and substitute off of the field. Generally, the FOGO does not remain on the field for offensive or defensive situations. Their sole job is to take face-offs and nothing else.
The FOGO can be equipped with a short stick or long stick. However, it is more common for the FOGO to use a short stick.
How a FOGO Must Legally Position Themselves for a Face-Off
Every FOGO that takes a lacrosse face-off has their own individual preferences and tendencies when it comes to positioning. However, there are a couple of core principles that every FOGO must follow to properly adhere to legal face-off procedure. These fundamental concepts are listed below:
- The FOGO must hold the lacrosse stick in a right hand dominant fashion. In other words, the right hand must be placed near the top of the lacrosse shaft just below the plastic of the lacrosse head. The left hand must be placed near the bottom of the shaft.
- The back of the lacrosse head must face toward the lacrosse ball. The front of the lacrosse head must face toward the FOGO.
- Both feet must be positioned behind the center line.
- The FOGO must be positioned behind and to the left (from the FOGO’s perspective) of the neutral zone. The neutral zone is an imaginary plane that originates where the metal material of the lacrosse shaft meets the plastic material of the lacrosse head.
- The lacrosse stick must lie parallel with the center line.
- The lacrosse stick cannot touch any part of the center line.
- The lacrosse head must be positioned so that its center plane aligns perfectly with the ball.
- The entire lacrosse stick must make full contact with the ground. Both hands of the FOGO must also make full contact with the ground.
A Detailed Description of the Legal Procedure of a Face-Off
There is also a distinct set of rules that govern the face-off procedure. These rules are outlined below:
- When the referee says “Down!” the players assume their face-off stance on the center line.
- When the referee says “Set!” the players must stay completely still. Any movements prior to the whistle being blown will warrant an illegal procedure penalty.
- The referee may make some adjustments to the positioning of the FOGOs prior to the whistle being blown once the “Set!” call has been stated. Do not rely on this advice because sooner or later the referees will just start dishing out penalties instead.
- The referee then blows the whistle and the players are then allowed to jostle for possession of the ball. It is important for players to note that the cadence of the referee will vary with every face-off.
A Run Down of Possible Face-Off Violations
Since there are so many stipulations that govern the lacrosse face-off, there are bound to be some face-off violations here and there. In the list below, you will find some of the most common face-off violations that referees call:
- Moving once the “Set!” call has been initiated.
- Intentionally pinning down the opposing player’s lacrosse stick (with the body or the crosse) to prohibit them from acquiring possession of the ball.
- Touching or grabbing the ball with the hands or fingers.
- Kicking at the opposing player’s lacrosse stick.
- Distracting the opposing player with noises to compel them to jump prematurely.
- Possessing the ball in the back of the lacrosse head for an excessive period of time.
- Carrying the ball in the back of the lacrosse head for more than one step.
- Lacking a single wrap of colored tape from the throat of the lacrosse head down six inches on the handle.
- The presence of any tape that touches the plastic throat of the lacrosse head.
- Having a goalkeeper face-off.
It is important to note that a technical foul will be issued if a team commits three face-off violations in a single half. The penalized team will have to spend thirty seconds of game time in a man-down situation.
Importance of the Face-Off to Lacrosse
The face-off is one of the most decisive factors in dictating the outcome of a lacrosse game.
The face-off is a crucial determinant of the amount of possessions a team will receive. Possession time is a key indicator of the likelihood that a lacrosse team will come out of the game with a win or a loss. This makes sense. After all, an offense cannot score if they never get the ball.
For this reason, it is imperative that a lacrosse team has a player that is skilled at the face-off position. This is why we are seeing more and more teams designating a specific FOGO on their team for the sole purpose of taking face-offs. In the early days of lacrosse, the designation of a FOGO was rare. Nowadays, this practice is practically mandatory, particularly at the higher competitive tiers.
Skills that Players Need to Get Good at Lacrosse Face-Offs
There are a couple of skills that a player needs to have at the face-off position. These skills lay a firm foundation for successful face-off contenders from the collegiate level all the way down to the youth level.
Absurd Reaction Speed
Players need to have a ridiculous reaction speed in order to thrive at the face-off position.
As soon as the referee blows the whistle, they need to react quickly in order to be the first player to the ball. A split second delay can make the difference between a face-off win or a loss. These split second differences in reaction speed only get magnified as players progress to the more competitive levels of lacrosse.
No degree of technical skill or brute strength can really overcome a player that has a tremendous advantage in reaction speed. This is why players at the face-off position absolutely need to hone in on their reflexes to even have a chance at a solid face-off winning percentage.
Knows How to Use the Entire Body for Leverage
Another element that players at the face-off position need to consider is how to use their whole body as leverage.
Once players are tied up in an equal contest for the ball, it is essentially just a brutal clash of physicality. The player that can generate the most force behind their stick to clamp down on the ball will ultimately be the one to win the face-off battle.
Next time you observe a high caliber face-off match, take note of what happens when the players get tied up. Typically, the players begin to circle around the ball in an attempt to drive their lacrosse head forward over the ball. Since they are throwing all of their momentum into their clamp, it drives them into a circular motion around the lacrosse ball.
Players must learn how to utilize every muscle, from forearm strength to leg drive, in order to gain a slight edge over their opponent. Trust me, every little ounce of power counts in these evenly matched face-off contests.
Plays with a Chip on Their Shoulder
Lastly, players at the face-off position need to play with a chip on their shoulder.
From an outside perspective, the face-off position may seem rather simple. After all, how hard can it be to take face-offs… right? Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The entire team depends on this single player to generate possessions for the team. One bad stretch of face-offs can shift the momentum of the game in favor of the opposition. For this reason, it is crucial that players scrap as hard as they can each and every time they step up to take the face-off, especially when the going gets tough.
Even if the opponent is faster, players at the face-off position need to make it their goal to at least give their team a chance at possession. The best way to do this is to make the face-off a 50/50 ground ball scenario, rather than a technical match of wits.
This strategy demands a certain kind of mentality. This mentality can only come from a willingness to scrap at all costs.
How Players Practice to Get Better at Face-Off
The only way to improve at lacrosse face-offs is through hours and hours of repetition.
One way that I have found most FOGOs improve their face-off quickness is through online face-off cadences. They set a ball down on the ground, assume the face-off stance, and use a video online to mimic the “Down! Set! Go!” cadence that referees use in game.
An example of a video with this face-off cadence call is provided below:
Every time the referee blows the whistle, they clamp their stick onto the ball just like they would in game. Most FOGOs implement this practice routine into their daily schedule just to make sure that their reflexes stay sharp. These extra repetitions help to build the muscle memory of the clamping movement until it is second nature.
What Lacrosse Equipment Best Complements the Face-Off
There are certain pieces of lacrosse equipment that help to complement players at the face-off position. Although these equipment benefits are not mandatory, they do certainly provide a slight advantage at the face-off X.
Flexible, Lightweight Lacrosse Head
It is standard for FOGOs to use a flexible, lightweight lacrosse head.
FOGOs opt for flexibility in their lacrosse head to have maximal control over the ball from the clamping position. Stiff lacrosse heads are not able to grant nearly as much maneuverability from the clamping position.
In addition, stiff lacrosse heads are more prone to snapping under the pressure of the face-off. Flexible lacrosse heads are better equipped to handle the repetitive stress of the face-off X.
FOGOs also prefer to use lightweight lacrosse heads. As aforementioned, a substantial portion of how successful a player will be at face-offs is how quickly they are able to clamp on the ball. Most of this has to do with reaction speed. However, there are some subtle ways that FOGOs can hasten the clamping motion.
One way is to reduce the weight of their lacrosse head as much as possible. Even if a player can shed a couple of grams off of their lacrosse head, they may be able to reach the ball a fraction of a second sooner. In the world of face-offs, every fraction of a second counts.
Soft, Pliable Mesh
It is also important that face-off players invest in soft, pliable mesh.
Players are forced to clamp on the ball with the back of their lacrosse head. As you can probably imagine, this leaves the lacrosse pocket a bit strange after the face-off is done. Rather than forming a solid cavity where the ball can lie, the pocket protrudes outward toward the face of the lacrosse head.
A picture of what this looks like is provided below:
This can certainly present some complications if a player needs to catch a pass or scoop up a loose ball.
Soft mesh helps to minimize these complications. Since soft mesh is easily pliable, the ball can easily fall into the mesh and reform the pocket back to its original shape. This allows players to pass, catch, and scoop up ground balls as if they never took the face-off at all.