Lacrosse Rules and Basics

Submitted by Brooks on February 11th, 2012 at 6:22 PM

Michigan kicks off it’s 2012 season on Sunday.  So, I figured it was worth a short post to explain the basic rules and set up of a lacrosse field.  If you grew up playing the game or around the game, this post will seem boring and really rudimentary, but hopefully you’ll find some of the later posts more interesting and helpful.  If you’re new to the game and want to have a sense of what’s going on this spring, then my hope is that you find this really helpful.


Note: everything below is for the men’s game.  If people have questions about the basics of the women’s game I’d be more than happy to address those as well, but since the men’s team goes varsity in 2012 I figured I would start with men’s basics.


The Field


Here is a link to what a field looks like and its dimensions.  The field is roughly the same size as a football field and just slightly smaller than a college soccer field (110 yards by 60 yards).  In terms of rules and what to think about when you’re looking at the field, the easiest correlation is to a hockey rink.  View the midline in lacrosse as the red line in hockey, and the two restraining lines as the two blue lines.  You have an offensive and defensive half of the field on either side of the midline, but in actuality your offensive and defensive zone go from the restraining line (hockey blue line) to the endline.

Like ice hockey, you can also take the ball and play offense/defense behind the goal.  There is a lot more room behind cage in lacrosse, so you’ll see a lot of offenses set up their plays and formations from behind the cage.

Each goal is surrounded by a crease.  The goal is 6 ft x 6 ft, and the crease has a diameter of 18 feet.  The defense is allowed to pass through their goalie’s crease, but offensive players are not allowed to step into the crease during play.  If an offensive player does step in the crease, it’s an automatic change in possession.  Their sticks and arms, however, can break the airspace of the crease.  Sometimes you will see an offensive player steps into the crease and no call is made.  This means the referees determined 1 of 2 things occurred on the play: either a) the offensive player was pushed into the crease by a defensive player, therefore it was not his fault he stepped in or 2) there was a goal on the play and the player stepped in the crease after the ball crossed the goal line.  Since the play was over once the ball crossed the line, the offensive player could enter the crease.



Basics: Each team has 10 players on the field at any given time: 1 goalie, 3 defensemen, 3 midfielders, and 3 attack.  You can normally tell which player is which based on what stick they have. 

  • Goalies (in addition to normally being around, you know, the goal) have a stick with the biggest pocket (net).  It’s around the size of the net that you’d see a pool cleaner use or that you would use fishing
  • Defense are also called “long poles” (easy on the jokes, people, lacrosse provides plenty of “that’s what she said” moments) because they have the biggest sticks on the field (settle down).  Their stick is just under 6 feet long (ok, have at it)
  • Midfielders and Attack have the short sticks.  If you’ve noticed the neighborhood youths in front of your coffee shop have traded in their hacky sacks for lacrosse sticks, they are normally middie/attack sticks.

Now that you know who’s on the field, let’s talk about who goes where.  On defense, you must have at least 4 players on your defensive half of the field (behind the midline) at all times.  Normally, these are your 3 defensemen and your goalie.  On offense, you must always have 3 players on your offensive half of the field (again, behind the midline).  You normally have your 3 attack stay on the offensive side of the field at all times.  That leaves the 3 midfielders who, like in soccer, run the entire length of the field and play both offense and defense.  If you are ever caught with the wrong number of players on either half the field, it’s a penalty—if you have the ball you lose possession, if the other team has the ball you will be called for a 30 second penalty (more on those later).

This means that while the game is technically 10v10, the majority of time is often actually played 6 v 6: the offensive team’s 3 attack and 3 middies (since their team’s 3 defense and goalie are behind the midline) vs. the defensive team’s 3 defensemen and 3 middies (since their team’s 3 attack are behind the midline).

One other thing you’ll notice is that teams talk about their “LSM,” which is an abbreviation for “Long Stick Middie.”  Each team is allowed a maximum of four long poles on the field at any given time.  So, when a team is on defense they will try to sub out one of their midfielders for an extra defender.  This brings us to:



Substitutions in lacrosse are also very similar to ice hockey.  You’ll see a lot of teams will do most of their substitutions “on the fly” or during the flow of the game.  So, while your offense is passing the ball around, you may bring in a new group of midfielders onto the field.  The second one player is off the field, you can bring another one on to ensure no one ever has more than 10 players on the field at a time.  Many teams will try to get a group of 3 defensive middies on the field (an LSM and 2 midfielders who specialize in defense), and then will sub them out for 3 offensive middies (players who specialize in offense.  Wait, sorry, that was probably pretty obvious).

The other situation for substitutions is called a “horn.”  If the ball goes out of bounds along the sideline only, either coach is allowed to ask for a horn, which stops play and allows both teams to make as many substitutions as they need.  On a horn, you could theoretically sub out all 10 players without risk because the ref will not re-start play until both teams are done substituting.

Finally, after a goal, time out or a penalty that results in a man-up or man-down situation, both teams are also allowed to make as many substitutions as they need and referees will stop play until both teams complete their subs.


Face Offs

At the start of each quarter and after every goal, there is a faceoff.  During a faceoff, only the three midfielders from each team are allowed to run in between the restraining lines.

This is also why having a good faceoff guy is so important.  If you consistently win the faceoff, lacrosse almost becomes “make it-take it.”  You never have to let the other team touch the ball.  Or, if you give up a goal, a good faceoff guy gets you possession so your offense can get you back into the game and your defense take a breather.


When the Ball Goes Out of Bounds

This is where lacrosse confuses most people.  If the ball goes out of bounds on a pass, it’s just like any sport—whoever touched the ball last loses possession of the ball.

On a shot, however, whichever team is closest to the ball when it goes out of bounds gains possession of the ball.  As a result, most teams will keep one offensive player behind the net at all times.  While it gives them one less shooter for the defense to account for, it means that they always have a player right on the goal line to keep possession after every shot.



Finally, penalties are very similar between ice hockey and lacrosse.  Even the penalties you’ll hear called are very similar: offsides, slashing, push(check) from behind, tripping, illegal body check, etc.  Rather than go through every single penalty individually, here’s the basic rule of thumb: you can do whatever you want to an opponent as long as it isn’t to their head, from behind, or below the waist.  Other than that, most things are fair game.

In the event of a penalty, one of two things will happen.  If neither team has possession of the ball when the penalty occurs, it’s considered a “loose ball” and the ref will stop play almost immediately.  Some refs will allow for a “play on” if the victimized team has an advantage in play like in soccer, but that is not very common.  If you commit a loose ball penalty, the other team is given possession of the ball (there is not stoppage in play for substitutions in the event of a loose ball penalty).

If a penalty does occur when a team has possession, the refs will throw the same flag that you see in a football game, but like in ice hockey they will let play continue until the next whistle.  Like ice hockey, after the whistle blows the player who committed the penalty sits in the penalty box and the team plays one player short for either 30 seconds (for technical fouls like push from behind or offsides) or 60 seconds (for personal fouls like slashing or illegal body check).    These situations are also called “EMO” or “extra man opportunities.”  The offense gets to then play against a defense 6v5 rather than 6v6 until the penalty ends.  With almost all penalties, if the team playing man-down gives up a goal then the penalty automatically ends and the player is again allowed back onto the field.


If you have any other questions about basic rules, please ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer (or any of the other readers who have as much experience, if not more so, than me with the game).  My next post is going to be about the basics of offensive and defensive strategies and what Michigan will most likely run based on their the coaching staff’s past.  As always, also let me know if there’s anything specifically you’d like me to cover.



February 14th, 2012 at 12:12 PM ^

I love the lacrosse Offsides rule.  It actually helps to open the game up, instead of seemingly arbitrarly kill off exciting play (looking at you, futbol).  Watching a defensemen barge up the field on a fast break is always fun, too. 


February 15th, 2012 at 12:15 PM ^

It's really rare.  I suspect if you hear about "great attacking defensemen" they mean their defensive style.  If you watch a full season's worth of one D-I lacrosse team your odds might be about 50/50 of seeing a long-pole player score a goal.  Obviously it's very awkward to try and pass or shoot with a long stick.

As for goalies.....I've been watching lacrosse since 2006 and I've seen a goalie take a shot twice.  And that's only because UVA had a goalie who was uncannily good with the ball and really liked his occasional forays out into the wilderness, and it so happened that he got the ball on a good bounce, the Red Sea parted for him - largely out of disbelief that the goalie would even do that - and he just kept going and scored it.


February 15th, 2012 at 4:56 PM ^

Is a defenseman carrying the ball across to break out and then dumping the ball off to an attackman before coming back over the midline. You have a set amount of time to advance the ball (like basketball) so to "Clear" the zone you'll see some shuffling at times before they settle into an offensive set.

Sometimes Smotz will dribble the ball up the floor before getting it to a point guard to beat the press. That's an analogy for what defensemen do most of the time on the clear.


February 15th, 2012 at 9:48 PM ^

Teams at the D1 level will normally carry a roster of 45-50 people, as a couple of other posters have mentioned in some other comments.

As far as scholarships, men's teams are allowed between 12-13 scholarships (the numbers kind of vary).  Here is the most recent article I could find from a very, very credible source in Laxpower, if you'd like more information.  A little dated since it's from 2008, but you can get some more info: