One of the most beautiful things about sports is how one sport can have so many different variations, yet the objective remains the same. This is seen in a variety of different sports throughout the world. There is the National Football League and the Canadian Football League. Both of these leagues play football at its core, but each has minor differences in the size of the field as well as the rules of the game. There are many different basketball leagues throughout the world, with the National Basketball Association being the largest. American basketball and European basketball have leagues that play basketball, they just have different sets of rules applied. Then you add in 3v3 basketball which alters the game even more.
Lacrosse is no different, as the two most common forms of lacrosse are box lacrosse and field lacrosse and now the addition of Sixes, as the sport continues its journey to make it to the Olympic stage in 2028.
Field lacrosse is most likely what American’s think of when you hear the word lacrosse. This beautiful sport dates back to 1100 AD, when it was first played and invented by the Haudenosaunee. Although there are still many similarities to how the sport is played now, much has changed as it has become a more organized sport.
Field lacrosse is played on a large field that can vary in size depending on the level you are participating but is traditionally 110 yards in length and 60 yards in width. Each game is composed of two teams, each with 10 players on the field at any given time. These 10 players consist of a goalie, three defenders, three midfielders, and three attackers. Each goal is occupied by a goalie, and surrounded by a crease (only defenders and the goalie can enter this crease). Goals are both six feet high and wide, surrounded by a crease that is 18 feet in diameter. The goals are located 15 yards at each end of the field.
Each game is divided into four quarters of 15 minutes in length each. The winner is decided by who has scored the most goals at the end of regulation, if the score results in a tie, then there is a 5-minute window of overtime. The overtime winner is determined by whichever team scores first. Every game is started with a faceoff, these are repeated throughout the game after each score and at the beginning of each quarter.
Box lacrosse originated in the 1930s in Canada. Many Canadians are first exposed to the sport through this discipline, as it is their national summer sport, and play during the summers when the hockey rinks are not in use. Much like the name infers, box lacrosse is played entirely in the confines of an ice hockey rink (as the ice is covered with turf or on the concrete of the melted ice) with the dasherboards intact. This is where the term “box” comes from.
The National Lacrosse League (NLL) is a box lacrosse league. The field or “floor” is 200 feet in length and 85 feet in width. Each game consists of two teams of 19 rostered players, with six players on the surface at any one time. These six players consist of one goalie and five runners. Each goal in the NLL is 4 feet 9 inches wide and 4 feet high, with the surrounding crease being 9 feet 3 inches radius. Offensive players are not allowed to step or make contact with the crease at any given time when trying to score.
Each game in the NLL is divided into four quarters of 15 minutes in length each, starting with a faceoff. Faceoffs are recurring as they happen after every goal is scored and at the beginning of each quarter similar to field lacrosse. The winner of the game is decided by whichever team has scored the most goals at the end of regulation. If regulation ends in a tie, there is a 5-minute overtime period. The winner of overtime is decided by whichever team scores first.
One of the largest differences between these two versions of lacrosse is the size of the playing surface. Field lacrosse is played on a much larger field, as many times these fields are football/ soccer fields, whereas box lacrosse is primarily played in ice hockey rinks. This can cause box lacrosse to be played at a faster pace, much more like hockey or basketball, with more physicality as due to there being less space to move around.
Another difference between the two is that in field lacrosse there must be at least four players (including the goalie) in the defensive half of the field at all times. There must also be three players in the attacking half at all times which is why at times, you may see players stop running at the midfield line to not cross it. This differs from box lacrosse where substitutions are made for offensive and defensive possessions and players can be on both ends of the floor. The game has evolved to encourage specialization where with each change of possession, the full roster on the floor changes from offensive to defensive players. This also allows for the exciting transition or breakaway goals in box lacrosse when players can use the whole playing surface.
In field lacrosse, up to four players can use a long lacrosse stick, whereas in box everyone must use a short stick, with the goalie as the exception. Fighting is allowed to happen in box lacrosse, similar to hockey (with a major penalty or game misconduct called) but are not allowed in the majority of field lacrosse leagues, with the Premier Lacrosse League as the exception. Although this is allowed, it results in a penalty and could potentially lead to additional punishments by the way of fines or suspensions.
Both box and field lacrosse have penalties in place for when athletes disobey the rules, but the type of penalties differ between the two. In box lacrosse, there are three types of penalties: minor penalties, which result in two minutes in the penalty box, major penalties which result in five minutes in the penalty box, and misconduct, which results in an automatic ejection from the game (two majors = misconduct). For minor penalties, the offending team will be down a player for the two minutes and if the other team scores in that time, the player is released from the penalty box. For major penalties, it is non-releasable meaning that player will serve the full five minutes. If the opposing team scores twice during those five minutes though, the offending team will be back at full strength (with the offending player still serving the penalty).
Field lacrosse also has three types of penalties: technical foul which results in 30 seconds in the penalty box, personal foul which results in one minute in the penalty box, and a major foul which results in three minutes in the penalty box. Similar to box, field has both releasable and non-releasable penalties.
Both box and field also have a shot clock, box has a 30 second shot clock, whereas field has a clock that varies between 52-90 second shot clock.
The goaltender’s equipment/style is probably the last major difference between the two disciplines. Box lacrosse goalies look much more like hockey goalies with the pads they wear because they tend to save more shots with their body from closer ranges with the smaller net. Field goalies primarily use their stick to make saves and wear less protection. In addition to the same protection the runners wear (elbow pads, gloves, cup, helmet), they also wear a throat guard (and helmet in women’s field lacrosse) to their helmet and a chest protector at the professional level.
This past year, World Lacrosse developed a new discipline of play similar to that of box lacrosse in speed, roster size but with the outdoor setting and goal sizes of field. It is called Sixes. Sixes is essentially a condensed version of both field and box version. This game is played on a 70 x 36 meter open field (no boards). It consists of four, 8-minute quarters, with a 30 second shot clock. This fast pace, high tempo game, has all six players on the field playing both offense and defense, with substitutions happening on the fly like hockey. Unlike both field and box lacrosse, the ball is brought back into the field of play by the goalie after each goal (like taking the ball out of bounds after a made basket in basketball) rather than by a faceoff. This style of play is played much faster than that of normal field lacrosse, thus hoping that it can become popular quickly due to the speed of the game.
The first major Sixes tournament happened at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama with the Canadian’s winning gold for both men’s and women’s tournaments. International lacrosse competitions have traditionally been dominated by Canada, United States, and the Haudenosaunee Nationals for both men and women. In a pleasant surprise for many, Japan won bronze at the World Games last summer in the men’s tournament, showing the growth of the game and ability for all nations to compete.
As lacrosse continues its push into the Olympic games, Sixes allows the other nations of World Lacrosse to build more competitive rosters and start programs when they do not need the size of a field/box roster, nor the amount of equipment needed for either. Similar to Rugby sevens, it levels the playing field across the nations in attempt to grow the game at the highest level.
There is not really a competition between these forms of lacrosse as to see which is better. In fact, many professional lacrosse players play both box and field lacrosse through the year with many of the pros playing Sixes last summer. The style of one discipline helps compliment your skills in the other, making for more dynamic players across every position. It is simply a unique way in which the sport has grown and adapted to different styles and variations as we continue to develop the sport to be a game for everyone and on the largest stages.
At the end of the day, it does not matter which discipline you play, as long as you go out and play or watch and have fun doing it!