Fastest Game on Two Feet

It’s fast, it’s fun, and it may be coming to your school soon. But lacrosse also has a host of inherent risks to be aware of.

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled The Athletic Administrator’s Scheduling Book, published by LRP Publications.

Athletic Management, 15.2, February/March 2003,

The oldest sport known to be played in North America, lacrosse is becoming increasingly popular among today’s students. According to the 2002 NFHS participation survey, more than 81,000 high school students now play the sport—46,000 boys and 35,000 girls. The number of participants in boys’ lacrosse grew by 4,384 last year, behind only football and soccer for sports with the most growth.

As early as the 15th century, many different Native American tribes played the sport, sometimes referring to it as “Little Brother of War.” French missionaries in Canada called it La Crosse because the stick reminded them of a bishop’s “crosier” (or “staff” in English).

Today, lacrosse appeals to many because of its fast pace. A combination of football, ice hockey, and basketball, it has been called the fastest game on two feet. The men’s game uses a stick with a large pocket, allowing shots to travel at very fast speeds. The women’s stick uses a smaller pocket, which results in less powerful shots.

Because it is so fast paced and requires some very sport-specific skills, it is a game with several inherent risks. The largest risk is that it is not very well-known and is being offered by schools without proper safety procedures in place.

Game Knowledge
Probably the most important safety measure in the game of lacrosse is making sure qualified people are supervising the sport. Its increase in popularity has created its major safety problem, as there are not enough qualified coaches and officials to keep up with the rise in the number of participants. And because the men’s and women’s game are fairly different (and usually both played in the spring), one qualified coach is not enough to cover both teams.

When staffing is not adequate, there is a lack of skill on the part of the athletes and unsafe play often goes uncalled. For this reason, do not start this sport unless you have hired a qualified coach and you know competent officials will be available in your area to referee the matches.

One of the reasons skill is so important in this sport is because a fast-traveling ball that is off target can cause serious injury. Players need to be able to quickly get their sticks in position and to catch the ball cleanly. Offenses need to be able to execute properly to avoid passes to an unsuspecting teammate, and defensive players need to be able to block shots with sticks and not their bodies. Although rare, be aware that a ball hitting a goalkeeper’s chest protector has been known to be forceful enough to initiate cardiac problems.

Because checking is allowed in the men’s and boys’ game, players must be fully trained in proper ways to use body contact. All contact must occur from the front or side, above the waist and below the shoulders. Coaches must thoroughly teach contact skills through a progressive series of drills for checking to be safe.

If used improperly, the lacrosse stick can become a weapon; thus, its proper usage is essential. All stick checks must be away from the seven-inch bubble around the head. The official should be encouraged to call a tight game.

An often-neglected skill is teaching players how to fall while holding a lacrosse stick. Teach this skill by having the athletes fall without a stick, then progress to drills with a stick in hand.

Because there is much game knowledge to be learned, be sure your players are ready for the sport before playing any competition. The best way to start a varsity program is to first add lacrosse to the middle school physical education curriculum, then start a freshman club, then a jv team that plays other beginning programs and/or weaker interscholastic jv teams. Next year you go varsity, but play teams of the same caliber. The biggest mistake is trying to start a varsity level program in one or two years.

Even when your varsity players are ready to go head-to-head with another school, be careful to avoid mismatching. It’s critical that neophyte teams don’t compete against advanced teams. This raises the chances of injuries for both teams’ players.

Along with understanding the nuances of playing the game, your athletes need the proper equipment to stay safe on the lacrosse field. Mouthguards are a must, as is proper equipment for the goalies.

In men’s and boys’ lacrosse, helmets and shoulder pads are required. However, they are quite different than football helmets and pads. Shoulder pads are not for blocking and tackling, but for protection during checking. Helmets must be NOCSAE-certified, and never used as a spearing weapon. I also recommend athletes wear rib pads to guard against a ball or stick in the chest area. All of this equipment must be worn at practice as well as during games.

In the women’s and girls’ game, which most resembles the Native American game of the past, there is no checking, and some of the equipment requirements continue to be unresolved. Players rarely wear helmets, but a handful of leagues and state associations have mandated goggles for players. Close-fitting gloves, nose guards, and soft headgear are other optional equipment being considered. Whether these pieces of equipment would decrease or increase the rate of injuries in the girls’ game remains open for discussion. The question is: Will more equipment increase safety or increase contact and rougher play?

Outside The Lines
The fast-moving ball also means there are more chances for spectator injuries. The key is to keep onlookers as far back as possible. Rope off the area and never allow fans to sit or stand behind the goals, unless you have a very large net system. A six-yard buffer zone is recommended as a minimum space to keep fans off the field.

It’s also important to have nonactive players stay behind the designated lines and to remind them to keep their eyes on the game. Ball boys and girls should be at least of middle-school age. You might even require them to wear helmets and facemasks.

In the women’s and girls’ game there are no out-of-bounds lines, which has the potential to be unsafe. So far, this has not been a problem, but it may be something to keep an eye on.

Like other sports, lacrosse requires close supervision, proper conditioning, daily field inspections, preparticipation medical forms, informed consent forms, the availability of water, and an emergency plan. Finally, good sportsmanship and caring coaches, as well as constant vigilance, are other key ingredients. Keep this “fastest game on two feet” the safest game on two feet.

For a look at a discussion on whether the women’s game should require eye goggles, log onto and type “goggles” into the search window.