Hot Pot: Making Lacrosse Safer

making lacrosse safer

Everywhere we look, people seem to be talking about making lacrosse safer in one way or another. It ranges from hitting being reigned in at the collegiate level through new rules, to concussion studies, a debate about helmets for girls in Florida, and beyond. It’s not surprising in the least bit, nor is it something that can simply be shrugged off, due to the litigious nature of our society. The debate is very real, and whichever way it turns out, a lot of people have a lot of money to lose or gain in the process.

So expect it all to be very confusing.

Photo Credit: Craig Chase

I believe I am pretty middle of the road on this subject. I’m all for increased safety and I approve of some of the recent rule changes for just that reason. I also recognize that injuries will occur as long as people play competitive contact sports no matter how much we protect people. Here’s another disclaimer: I also like contact sports.

So how can lacrosse be a safer game, which seems to be the natural path, AND remain popular, without losing its identity?

We could legislate more rules into the game. That’s certainly an option that many are pushing. We also could eliminate hitting altogether. Or we could make it a rule that every player has to be wrapped in pillows and down comforters to absorb any impacts. I think you get where I’m going with this… I’m not a fan of any of it. I love that the NCAA Rules Committee placed a larger emphasis on head shots, slashes, and big hits on defenseless players. But in my opinion, this just cleared up and existing rule on those kinds of penalties, and did not change the game.

Going much further in more restrictive terms could truly change the game, so how do we keep that from happening, assuming we collectively like the rough and tumble version of the game that is played now?

It starts with how youth lacrosse is taught, and what lessons are learned from an early age. I see plenty of young kids wind up for a big check, which they know will hurt the ball carrier due to his flimsy beginner pads. The player drops the ball, and I blow the whistle as the slasher goes to pick it up, looking at me in bewilderment.

“That was a slash.”

“But it gets me the ball back.”

Fair point, young slasher, it most certainly does.

Slashing someone can get you the ball back quite effectively, but at the youth level, it’s really not required at all. One good can opener or a simple lift on 90% of the youth players out there and it’s ball down, yet only 10% of the kids have any idea how to throw either one. Or a poke check. Or a back check. Or any check. They do know how to slash though. That, young kids can do with no problem, but that’s not checking. It’s slashing.

Once a couple of those young kids start to develop, hitting comes into play on a more serious level. Most of the kids are still huddling around ground balls, running up and stopping when they reach the group, but a couple have learned how to hit (usually in football) and they bring that to the table. Now we have slashing and hitting people like you do in football as your main defensive weapons. Awesome. No wonder concussions are a concern. We’ve been letting kids go buck wild when they start out!

Eventually, the kids who are real about the game do learn to develop good footwork, learn a litany of checks (or at least a few), and take their game to the next level. They learn how to set up a check, how to read an offensive player, and how to play team defense. They also relearn how to hit and slash, because they were usually doing that wrong too.

Basically, what I’m saying is that youth lacrosse is not really cutting it right now in many ways, but like college lacrosse, I don’t know that legislating change is going to do it all. US Lacrosse has done a great job of reigning in hitting and shots to the head, and trying to keep the game’s focus on skills, athleticism, and teamwork, but they can only do so much. The rest of the work is really up to us, the coaches and players of the game.

Now, when I was reading Gordon Corsetti’s amazing history of lacrosse pieces, I came across one portion that interested me even more than the rest as it relates to the above issue, and it had to do with native players getting injured in their old long-field games:

Carver saw it played by Indians, whom he says played with such vehemence that broken bones were no rarity, ‘but not withstanding, there never appears to be any spite, or wanton exertions of strength to affect them; nor do disputes ever happen between the parties

I am honestly curious if the above mentality, modified for today’s needs, can still work. Would that kid, the slasher from earlier, would he think of the above as crazy? Is the idea of hurting other players as an end goal just a part of our modern game, and to a larger extent, our society?

Can the sport of lacrosse, and the vast majority of those who play it, agree to teach the game and only the game, and none of the extracurricular violence? Can we bring sportsmanship back into the sport at higher level than it is currently seen in American sport? If we have any desire to play the game this way, with a real sense of honor, we will have to.

Lacrosse seems to be at a great crossroads right now, and the near future could decide much of what this sport becomes. While the history of our game is a long one, and the above ideology has often not been true in modern lacrosse, it can still be true today. The idea of playing hard, but also in a “gentlemanly” fashion is not dead. The idea of playing before a higher power is also alive and well. Both of these mentalities will keep it a great game, and inadvertently, they could make it a safer game.

It must be near impossible to protect someone from someone else who intends to injure them. That seems like the most impossible scenario around. So the only solution to that dilemma must be to remove the intent to injure someone else from the game altogether. I can’t think of a better place to start than with the kids.


  1. It’s a very tough line to draw for sure. You look at any men’s league out there and many of the players will be down to just helmets, gloves and maybe elbow caps. There’s an acknowledgment from most of us who have played for a long time that injuries do happen, it’s part of the game and accepted. The people I know who really pad up usually have some sort of physical job where a banged up shoulder can impact their livelihood.

    With kids, it’s a different story, especially beginners. Nobody wants to see kids get hurt in any capacity and everyone’s reaction is to how to prevent it from happening. I found coaching this past year that I was shocked how may times I was left in a situation where kids are looking to me for an explanation or a penalty and all I can really say is “yeah, that happens”. Your legs will get hit on GBs, you’ll be hit with shots as a defender and your neck will get the occasional slash. They all happen. In those examples, I don’t think it means we need shin guards, full chest/back guards and a lacrosse equivalent of horse collars. We have rules designed to keep people cautious around the head, tripping keeps away most accidental leg contact and the focus on the ball/stick.

    I want to let the equipment manufacturers keep doing their thing. They’ll keep making things stronger, lighter and more flexible. I like the game how it is and technology can increase safety over time.