What is Lacrosse? (Rules, Equipment, Origins & Strategy)


In recent years, lacrosse has burst onto the scene as one of the fastest growing sports in America. This has prompted people all around to ask what this sport is all about.

Lacrosse is a men’s and women’s team sport where players use netted sticks to carry, pass, and shoot the ball to score goals. The victor is decided by whichever team puts the ball inside the opposing goal the most. Different versions of lacrosse exist, but this general premise remains the same.

There is a lot more to lacrosse than just that simple summary however. To get a full understanding of exactly what this sport is, it’s necessary to take a look at the following:

  • the object of the game
  • the rules
  • the skills involved
  • the basic strategy
  • the player equipment
  • the origins of the sport
  • the growing popularity of lacrosse

All of these topics will be discussed in further detail in the sections below.

The Object of the Game

The object of lacrosse is to score more goals than the opponent. Lacrosse teams accomplish this in two ways. They score as many goals as possible on the opponent’s goal and play defense on the other end to prevent opposing scoring opportunities.

A General Overview of the Rules

Lacrosse has a set of universal rules that govern the sport. However, there are different versions of lacrosse where certain rules noticeably differ.

The Different Types of Lacrosse

Lacrosse is unique in that the rules between men’s lacrosse and women’s lacrosse differ tremendously, particularly in the realm of contact.

Men’s Lacrosse – Men’s lacrosse is the very definition of a contact sport. Defensive players are legally allowed to hit opponents, either with their body or their lacrosse stick, in an attempt to dislodge the ball from an opponent’s stick on defense.

There are several different versions of men’s lacrosse:

  • Field Lacrosse – This type of lacrosse is considered the outdoor version of the sport. It is played on a large, open field (such as a football field), hence the name field lacrosse. There are ten players allowed per team on the field at a time, making for twenty players in total.
  • Box Lacrosse – This type of lacrosse is considered the indoor version of the sport. The playing area is called a box rather than a field, hence the name box lacrosse. A box is essentially a hockey rink matted with turf instead of ice. With this type of lacrosse, only six players per team are allowed onto the playing area at once, making for twelve players total.
  • Intercrosse – This type of lacrosse is a shoot-off of lacrosse. Rather than having a netted head fitted to the end of the stick, a plastic basket is present instead. This is played on an indoor court with five players per side, making for ten players total.

Women’s Lacrosse – Women’s lacrosse is a non-contact sport. Defensive players are not legally allowed to roughly contact opponents in an attempt to dislodge the ball. Instead, they must use controlled, technical checks to knock the ball free on defense.

How the Game is Structured

The way the game is structured varies depending on the version of lacrosse that is being played along with the competitive level.

Four Quarters Equal One Game – Field lacrosse and box lacrosse games are typically broken down into four quarters lasting 15 minutes each. However, the length of these quarters can vary from league to league. For example, the quarter length for high school field lacrosse games are 12 minutes long.

Two Halves Equal One Game – Generally, women’s lacrosse games are broken down into halves. Similar to the quarter system, the length of these halves may vary. At the high school level, women’s lacrosse games are 50 minutes long, with each half being 25 minutes.

The Face-Off – Every men’s lacrosse game begins with a face-off. The face-off is the means by which referees fairly establish possession after every goal and at the start of every quarter. Two face-off specialists from each team meet at the center of the field and a ball is placed between them. Once the whistle is blown, each player tries to gain leverage over another to win possession, mainly by way of their speed and physicality.

The Draw – Women’s lacrosse games start with a draw. The draw is similar to the face-off in that it is utilized after every goal and at the start of every quarter. Two players position themselves at the center of the field. From here, the official places a ball in between their two horizontally held lacrosse sticks. At the sign of the whistle, the ball is propelled high into the air as each player maneuvers their lacrosse stick up and away.

Overtime – Formal lacrosse games do not end in ties, so an overtime period is used to decide the winner. The overtime period is sudden victory, meaning that the first team to score wins the game.

How the Scoring Works

A score in lacrosse is called a goal. Each individual goal counts for one point on the scoreboard. It’s important to note that a lacrosse score is called a goal and the netted cage that teams try to score on is also called a goal.

To score a goal, offensive players must maneuver themselves in a position that’s close to the netted cage, ideally towards the middle of the field. This way, they have the best angle—and ultimately the most amount of open space on the opposing goal—to shoot at.

However, offensive players cannot venture too close to the goal due to the presence of a circular area called the crease. The crease restricts offensive players from moving in extreme proximity to the goal. The crease can only be accessed by defensive players, such as the goalie.

The likelihood of scoring increase as ball carriers evade the on-ball pressure from defenders. In short, the more uncontested the shot is, the greater the chance of it going in. Offensive players use tactics like running, dodging, passing, and fakes to create these open shots.

All of these efforts must be taken because each goal is protected by a goalie. The primary job of the goalie is to prevent the ball from going into the back of the net. Shooters must optimize shooting angles, use deception to their advantage, and generate power behind their shot to sneak the ball past the goalie.

As soon as the ball crosses across the imaginary plane at the front of the cage (commonly referred to as the goal line), the shot is considered a goal. It does not matter if the ball bounces into the goal and back out. The goal still counts.

Lacrosse teams score about ten goals per game, give or take. A lacrosse goal is not nearly as common as a made shot in basketball, but it’s also not nearly as rare as a goal in soccer.

Standard Penalty Procedure

The penalty for lacrosse teams that violate the rules vary depending on the severity of the violation. The three types of penalties are described below.

Forfeit of Possession – This type of penalty is issued for minor infractions. When a referee witnesses one of these minor infractions, they promptly blow the whistle and stop play. From here, the offending team drops the ball on the ground, a player from the other team picks the ball up at that spot, and play restarts.

Temporary Suspension from Play – This type of penalty is reserved for more serious fouls. With these fouls, referees throw yellow flags onto the field to indicate that a personal foul has occurred.

Depending on how severe the foul is, the specified length of the suspension may be shorter or longer. The offending player must serve out their suspension time in the penalty box.

During this time, their team must continue on at a one player disadvantage. Once the specified suspension time has been served, the offending player may return to play, allowing their team to return to even strength.

Disqualification – This punishment is reserved for only the most reckless and malicious kinds of penalties. Although rare, this penalty is issued under special circumstances where the offending player caused a great deal of potential harm.

You can find more information about penalty procedure by clicking over to How Penalties Work in Lacrosse: A Helpful, Illustrated Guide.

Essential Lacrosse Skills for Success

To succeed as a player in the sport of lacrosse, there are a couple of fundamental skills that are absolutely vital. Without these skills, it will be difficult to gain a foothold in this sport.

Cradling

The very first skill that all lacrosse players learn is how to cradle the ball with their lacrosse stick.

Put simply, cradling is the means by which players possess the ball while moving around the field. It involves a curling motion of the wrists and arms to secure the ball within the netting of the stick, otherwise known as the pocket. This act of cradling exploits the centripetal force, which reduces the chances of the ball being knocked loose, even in the face of defensive checks.

This is arguably the most important skill in lacrosse because it allows players to move about freely on the field without turning the ball over. Player movement is imperative to lacrosse success. Players that fail to learn how to cradle will have a hard time keeping up with the up tempo pace of the game.

Passing

Another major lacrosse skill is the art of passing. Players are allowed to move the ball directly between teammates by way of airborne throws.

Ball movement is key to manipulating opposing defenses and creating viable scoring opportunities on offense. It allows teams to attack from various points on the field, which keeps the defense guessing.

To pass with a lacrosse stick, players must push with their top hand and pull with their bottom to thrust the ball out of the pocket toward their intended target. This takes time and patience to master, as every player has a different throwing technique and unique pocket string job.

Players need to be able to throw the ball with precision and accuracy in order to deliver the ball to another teammate’s stick without error. There are times where offensive players will be forced to thread the ball through tight windows to get the ball to a teammate. A player that lacks passing accuracy will inevitably hurt their team’s winning chances.

Catching

If passing is of vital importance in lacrosse, you can safely assume that catching is equally crucial. Even the most accurate passers throw an imprecise pass from time to time. For this reason, players need to have sufficient hand eye coordination to catch the majority of passes that come their way.

As aforementioned, passing technique involves a pushing with the top hand and a simultaneous pulling with the bottom hand. The process of catching is the exact opposite. It involves a pulling with the top hand a pushing with the bottom hand to accept the ball in the pocket.

In order to catch consistently, players need to have soft hands. A player that refuses to give with the ball as it contacts their lacrosse pocket will not be able to catch many passes. The ball will simply bounce out of the pocket due to the force of the pass.

This takes many repetitions to truly master, as timing the movement of the lacrosse stick to coincide with the pass can be tough at first.

Shooting

Another essential skill in lacrosse is shooting the ball with velocity and precision. Since the object of the game is to score more goals than the opponent, it only makes sense that shooting would qualify for this list.

It’s difficult to become proficient at shooting because of all the different ways players can shoot the ball. Lacrosse players must be able to score the ball up close to the goal, as well as far away. They need to have the capacity to catch and shoot quickly. Shooting on the run is a must. The most talented shooters even have to work on releasing the ball from a variety of different angles, such as overhand, sidearm, or underhand.

If you think that’s a lot already, try being able to do all of that with both hands. Needless to say, there’s always something to improve upon when it comes to shooting with a lacrosse stick. As the competition increases, players need to have a vast repertoire of shooting skills to maintain a high level of performance.

Checking

Up until this point, we’ve discussed essential skills that are geared toward the offense. You’re probably wondering, “What about the essential skills for the defense?”

The foremost skill for the defensive side of the ball is checking. There are two types of defensive checking techniques: body checks and stick checks. It’s important to bear in mind that rough body checks and rough stick checks are only allowed in men’s lacrosse. In women’s lacrosse, technical stick checks that are performed in a controlled manner are allowed.

Body Checks – This type of check is performed to force a ball carrier off their intended path. A legal body check must be done above an opponent’s waist, but below their shoulders. Contact is only limited to the front and side of the body. Any deviation from these rules will draw a penalty from the officials.

Contrary to popular opinion, body checks in lacrosse are not the same as tackles in football. With lacrosse body checks, the intent is to drive an opponent off of their desired course through physical contact.

Stick Checks – This type of check is meant to apply pressure to a ball carrier and disrupt their stick handling ability. By doing so, defenders also increase the likelihood of generating a turnover by jarring the ball loose from the opponent’s stick.

In men’s lacrosse, players can initiate significantly more contact with their stick checks by applying pressure on an opponent’s hands as well as their lacrosse stick. Since women’s lacrosse players are not equipped with protective gloves, only light contact with the opponent’s stick is considered legal.

Scooping

Yet another essential lacrosse skill to add to this list is scooping up ground balls that are loose on the field. On paper, this skill may seem simple enough. After all, how hard can it be to gather up a ball that’s just sitting on the field, right?

Unfortunately, this is not the case for the majority of ground balls. Ground balls result from errant passes, errant shots, defensive strips, and face-offs. Ground balls serve as opportunities for teams to earn extra possessions, similar to rebounds in basketball. By scrapping for these loose balls, lacrosse teams use their extra possessions to create further scoring opportunities, which increases their likelihood of winning the game.

For this reason, practically every player on the field swarms to 50/50 ground balls that are loose on the field. With so many players vying for possession, the ball bounces in all sorts of directions, making it difficult for players to gather possession.

Often times, it’s the player that’s willing to put their body on the line that comes out with the ball. Not many players are willing to thrust themselves into the thick of the scrum for a mere extra possession.

Dodging

Lastly, dodging is another tool that offensive specialists must have in their back pocket. Essentially, dodging is the means by which ball carriers manipulate defenders so they can get past them.

Dodging is key to beating on-ball defenders in one-on-one situations. Ball carriers cannot only rely on pure speed to run past defenders. At some point, they will need to throw in a few wrenches into their attacking scheme as well.

There are a variety of dodges players can use to get past defenders. The most notable of which are listed below:

  • Bull Dodge
  • Split Dodge
  • Face Dodge
  • Roll Dodge
  • Question Mark Dodge
  • Swim Dodge

You can find more information about how to perform each of these dodges by clicking over to Lacrosse Dodging: 6 Ways to Get Past Defenders in Lacrosse.

Offensive plays almost always start with a dodge to force the defense to rotate over. These rotations throw the defense out of sorts, opening up scoring opportunities for the rest of the offense. It also grants the ball carrier separation to either pass or shoot.

Without the prospect of dodging, it’s awfully difficult to jumpstart an offense. The most stagnant offenses are often the ones that encounter the most difficulty with dodging. For this reason, offenses need playmakers equipped with speed and agility that are willing to take it upon themselves to beat their matchups in one-on-one situations.

A Short Description of Basic Lacrosse Strategy

There are a few universal strategies that nearly every lacrosse team implements. Although every coach has their own playbook tendencies, they all generally stem from a few basic concepts.

Offensive Strategy

To start off, lacrosse offenses always initiate with a one-on-one dodge to get the defense to rotate, as discussed previously. These dodges can originate from a variety of locations. Typically, offensive players like to start their dodge from one of the four corners of the half field set:

  • Top Right
  • Top Left
  • Bottom Right
  • Bottom Left

The dodges that initiate from the bottom corners are actually located behind the goal, so not all dodges originate from up top.

When a ball carrier is able to dodge past the defender, they immediately look to score by running toward the goal. From here, one of two things happens.


Scenario 1 – None of the other defenders provide support, leaving the ball carrier to have a free, uncontested shot on goal. Dodgers are taught to shoot the ball if they do not see any help defenders coming.

Scenario 2 – One of the other defenders provides help, but leaves their defensive assignment behind in doing so. This opens up another teammate for an uncontested shot. Dodgers are taught to quickly move the ball to another teammate as soon as they draw another help defender.


In essence, the overarching objective of the offense is to create a free, uncontested shot. The offensive strategy for lacrosse is very similar to that of basketball.

In basketball, players attempt to dribble past defenders in order to draw help. If there’s no help coming, they shoot the open shot. If there is help on the way, they swing the ball to get it to whoever has been left open. This same basic concept applies to lacrosse, except the mechanics are slightly different.

In addition, fast breaks are also a large part of scoring goals on offense. Lacrosse has been called The Fastest Sport on Two Feet for good reason. As soon as the opposing team commits a turnover, players are off to the races to beat the other team to the other end of the field.

If the ball carrier is able to beat everyone to the other end of the field, they provide their team with a fantastic scoring opportunity because the defense will be completely unprepared for this unsettled situation.

Defensive Strategy

Lacrosse defenses also have a set of tried and proven strategies that they like to implement. Generally, there are two defensive strategies that teams have the choice of using for games: man-to-man defense and zone defense.


Man-to-Man Defense – This is the standard defensive scheme that teams prefer to set up with. In this defensive scheme, each defender matches up against an opposing player on the offense. They cover their defensive assignment at all times, unless another defender needs support.

Zone Defense – This is an alternative defense that lacrosse teams run. With zone defenses, each defender is assigned a specific section of the playing area to cover rather than a player. Any time that the ball carrier enters their zone, they apply pressure on them. In order for this to work, everyone must defend their respective zone.


Inevitably, there are times where ball carriers will dodge past the on-ball defender, allowing them a free path to the goal. In order to shut this scoring opportunity down, the rest of the defense must rotate over.

Ideally, the defense wants to close off the ball carrier’s free path toward the goal, buy time for the on-ball defender to recover, and leave the player farthest away from the ball open. If there has to be an open offensive player, it might as well be the player farthest away from the action.

In lacrosse, the defensive shift of another player to the ball carrier to stop them from having a free shot on goal is called a slide. The slide is an important concept to understand, as it is what all lacrosse defenses are founded upon.

Additional information on defensive slides can be accessed here at What is a Slide in Lacrosse – Definition & Examples.

Breaking Down the Different Lacrosse Positions

Along with basic offensive and defensive schemes, lacrosse teams also categorize the players on the field into positions. By doing so, each player can specialize their skill set toward one particular area of lacrosse.

Midfield – These players play both offense and defense. They serve as the intermediaries between both sides of the ball, following the ball back and forth between the different field ends. Consequently, midfielders typically run the most relative to every other position.

Attack – Players at this position are the primary playmakers on offense. They’re predominantly stationed in the offensive zone and are entrusted with the responsibility of creating viable scoring opportunities through dodging, passing, and shooting. For this reason, attackers have a superior set of stick skills when compared to the rest of the team.

Defense – These players act as to the antithesis to the attack. They’re specialized for the defensive end and guard the most dangerous offensive threats that opposing teams have to offer. In men’s lacrosse, defenders are equipped with lacrosse sticks that are significantly longer than the average lacrosse stick, called long poles.

Goalie – The main purpose of the goalie is to serve as the last line of defense. They try to stop opposing shots from entering into the goal by utilizing their lacrosse stick and body to get in front of the ball. Goalies also organize the defense and coordinate the clearing effort through their communication on the field.

You can find more detailed information about the various lacrosse positions by clicking over to The 4 Major Lacrosse Positions: A Beginner’s Guide.

A Brief Summary of the Player Equipment

The mandatory equipment for lacrosse varies depending on whether you’re playing men’s lacrosse or women’s lacrosse. Since men’s lacrosse is a contact sport, much more protective equipment is required compared to women’s lacrosse.

Mandatory Men’s Lacrosse Equipment

  • Helmet – A NOCSAE certified helmet is needed for men’s lacrosse to prevent head injuries, such as concussions.
  • Mouthguard – A mouthguard is also required to protect the teeth, lips and jaw. Mouthguards also help to stabilize the head and neck in the event that contact is made to this sensitive area.
  • Shoulder Pads – The shoulder pads required for lacrosse are not like the ones required for football. Where football shoulder pads are made with a hard plastic outer covering, lacrosse shoulder pads are fitted with high density foam and are noticeably softer.
  • Arm Pads – Arm pads are required to fit around the elbow to protect against defensive stick checks and body checks.
  • Gloves – Gloves are another piece of essential protective equipment meant to protect against defensive stick checks and body checks.
  • Cleats – Grass or turf cleats allow players to have traction on the field, so they don’t have to worry about slipping or falling on accident.
  • Lacrosse Stick – The lacrosse stick is by far the most important piece of equipment, considering it’s the centerpiece from which all lacrosse maneuvers are made.
  • Protective Cup – Lastly, male players must wear a protective cup to safeguard against errant checks and throws.

It is important to note that men’s lacrosse goalies wear specialized protective equipment that is better able to absorb the impact of lacrosse shots. Typically, the regular field player equipment is not sufficient for protecting against oncoming shots.

Men’s lacrosse goalies also have their own specially designed lacrosse sticks that feature a greater surface area. This provides goalies with a better chance at making saves.

Mandatory Women’s Lacrosse Equipment

  • Goggles – Eyewear helps to protect players’ eyes from stray defensive stick checks.
  • Mouthguard – Guards against injury to the teeth, lips, and jaw.
  • Lacrosse Stick – The lacrosse stick is the tool by which all fundamental lacrosse maneuvers are performed.
  • Cleats – Proper shoe wear allows players to make sharp cuts on the field without fear of injury. These cleats are not allowed to have metal spikes.

Women’s lacrosse goalies have their own set of equipment to protect against the force of high velocity shots. Protective eyewear is simply not enough to ensure safety in the net. For this reason, they wear a helmet, a throat piece, gloves, a chest protector, and leg pads to reduce the injury risk. Moreover, they also have their own specialized stick that’s meant specifically for making saves.

The Origins of the Sport

What many people fail to realize is that the roots of lacrosse date back to the early days of American history, prior to any European settlers. The Native Americans were actually the ones who founded the sport of lacrosse.

Due to the inconsistent data surrounding the sport’s origins, it’s difficult to accurately reconstruct how the sport was played during these times. In these early days, lacrosse actually wasn’t even called lacrosse. It was called stickball. It was only when the sport was first witnessed by early French pioneers that the name lacrosse came about. For those of you that do not know, lacrosse is a general French term that is used to describe any game using a stick and a ball (source).

Tribes all across North America played the sport of lacrosse. The game had a strong presence in the southeastern tribes, the Great Lakes, and the northeastern tribes in particular. Some examples of tribes that practiced lacrosse include the Cherokee, Seminole, Potawatomi, and Iroquois (source).

To Native Americans, lacrosse was not just a simple form of recreation. It played a significant role in their culture and was said to involve higher divine powers. Consequently, Native Americans conducted formal rituals and ceremonies to honor the game.

Lacrosse was not always used in a good-natured manner. Occasionally, lacrosse was used for the purpose of settling territorial conflicts between tribes. Wagering on lacrosse games was also another widely popular activity in the Native American community. With that being said, it’s important to note that the majority of lacrosse games were conducted in a peaceful manner.

The sport of lacrosse still remains an integral part of the modern Native American community. In fact, the Iroquois Nationals are consistently one of the most competitive teams at the Lacrosse World Championships (source).

The Growing Popularity of Lacrosse

In recent years, lacrosse has exploded onto the scene with participation increasing year after year. To give you some perspective, lacrosse only had 253,931 players in 2001. Since then, participation has risen to 829,423 in 2018 (source). That’s a 326% increase!

The best part about this trend is that it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. Participation is still skyrocketing and the lacrosse industry is growing as we speak. New lacrosse companies are beginning to pop up and there are even attempts to bring lacrosse to the mainstream media.

The Premiere Lacrosse League (PLL), a professional field lacrosse league founded by Paul Rabil, had its inaugural debut in 2019. The PLL has partnered with NBC sports to televise these games in an effort to grow the game. According to NBC sports, the inaugural 2019 season exceeded financial expectations, drawing in many more viewers than originally anticipated (source). Since then, the PLL has even added an expansion roster to reflect this growing demand for lacrosse.

Paul Rabil has also made several bold moves with the PLL rules in hopes of making the sport more attractive to casual sports fans. Some of these rule adaptations include (source):

  • 15 Yard 2-point Arc – Any shots scored beyond 15 yards away from the goal will count for two points instead of one.
  • Shorter Field Dimensions – Ten yards have been taken away from the middle of the field, bringing the goals closer together. This allows for more fast break opportunities and ultimately more scoring.
  • Allowance of Fighting – Players are allowed to settle disputes physically on the field, much like hockey.

All of these rule modifications seem to be working, as the PLL is accruing a greater audience seemingly with every game. This may prompt other professional lacrosse organizations, like Major League Lacrosse (MLL) and the National Lacrosse League (NLL), to follow in the footsteps of the PLL.

Admittedly, I never thought I would see the day where lacrosse was playing on my local gym’s television. Fortunately, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the recent growth in the sport. All in all, the future looks extremely bright for lacrosse. Hopefully this success will continue in the coming years.

Is Lacrosse the Sport for You?

With all this information in mind, you’re probably wondering whether or not lacrosse is something that might be up your alley. From my own experience, I can say with confidence that every young athlete should try lacrosse if they have the chance.

Coming from a soccer and basketball background, I had no intentions of playing lacrosse initially. It was only when my friends introduced me to the sport that I gained a little bit of interest in lacrosse. After picking up a lacrosse stick and shooting on a goal for an hour, I was hooked for life. If you still need convincing, check out the pump up lacrosse video below!

The thing that makes lacrosse special is that anybody can play it. Whether you’re a girl or boy, short or tall, slow or fast, it really doesn’t matter. As long as you have solid stick skills and a knowledgable understanding of how the game is played, you’ll do just fine.

So if you have yet to pick up a lacrosse stick, I highly recommend you do so! It’s well worth the time.

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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