World Lacrosse’s new Olympic trial rules found support growing among U.S. and Canadian national team players and coaches after using them in a pair of exhibition games at the Fall Classic on Oct. 20.
Through its Blue Skies Working Group, World Lacrosse is trying to develop a new discipline of the sport that would broaden its international appeal and best position it to be included in the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Their charge: Reduce the number of participants and corresponding team sizes to limit the impact adding lacrosse might have on the International Olympic Committee’s athlete cap, shrink the field dimensions and shorten the duration of games to fit within IOC formatting for spectators and television.
Other trials have been conducted or are planned in a number of other nations, including Australia, England, Germany Japan and Scotland, as well as the upcoming Pan American Lacrosse Association women’s qualifying event in Auburndale, Fla., Nov. 14-17.
Sixty-four nations currently have membership in World Lacrosse, whose goal is to reach 100 in the next five years as part of the Olympic vision. Lacrosse was a demonstration sport last in 1948 and hasn’t been contested as a medal sport since 1908.
“It’s cool that we’ve had the opportunity to be the guinea pigs and experiment with all the different ideas that World Lacrosse and US Lacrosse is coming out with,” said Alice Mercer, the U.S. women’s team defender. “It’s been a really cool experience. I’ve enjoyed it. I’m all for pushing the pace and making the game faster.”
The U.S. women defeated Canada 16-7 in the first game of the afternoon. On the men’s side, Canada topped the U.S. 23-18.
“I’m OK with these rules changes mainly because I’m a player that plays box and field,” said Graeme Hossack, the Canadian team member and reigning NLL Defensive Player of the Year. “To me, it’s more of a combination of the two, and it doesn’t affect me too much. It goes back and forth, you still get to play lacrosse — yes it’s a little unsettled, and it’s a quicker game. It’s exciting. There’s going to be lots of scoring with it, so it’s something people should be able to watch and get excited for.”
Exhibition games between the national teams from the U.S. and Canada highlighted the Fall Classic weekend at US Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, Md. They played Friday, Oct. 18, using World Lacrosse rules that govern world championship competition, before turning to the newly tweaked Olympic trial rules that Sunday.
“If we were to get picked for an Olympic team, obviously we’re going to accept any sort of rules, play our butts off, compete at whatever it is and have fun with it,” said Will Manny, an attackman for the U.S. team. “I thought it was a blast, but I just think they have to come up with a set of rules. I’ve done it twice, and each half or quarter has different rules. They have to stick to one thing and then play it, so we know what is going on.”
World Lacrosse, formerly the Federation of International Lacrosse, introduced initial versions of the new disciplines to member nations March 20 and have been evolving them based on feedback received. In addition to the six-on-six format, there’s a smaller field (70 meters by 36 meters), shorter games (four 8-minute periods of running clock), a 45-second shot clock, smaller roster sizes (10 per team), no backup rule for shots (possession changes based on team that touches the ball last) and draws only at the beginning of each period and overtime (with five seconds after each goal for the goalie to put the ball in play).
Current international rules do not include a shot clock, and the pace of play can be slow at times with lower scoring outcomes. The proposed Olympic rules would speed up the game and allow for higher scores after making significant changes ranging from field size and equipment to actual playing rules.
While World Lacrosse has emphasized that the existing men’s and women’s international disciplines of the sport would remain in place and core to its world championship program, some people have expressed their concern about the unintended consequences that could materialize in pursuit of Olympic inclusion.
“You look at this as a hybrid version between box and field,” said Joe Spallina, the U.S. women’s team assistant and head coach at Stony Brook. “People who are critical of this stuff need to look at it through a worldwide lens, rather than a United States or Canada lens, and consider what’s going to allow more countries to compete at this level.”
Judging from the Fall Classic exhibitions, the proposed format would seem to decrease the importance of positional specialists. In addition to returning the ball to play immediately after goals, there are no long poles and players who traditionally stick to just offense or defense must be adept on both ends of the field.
“From a stamina perspective, midfielders have an easier transition because they’re going from going 120 yards to 70 yards,” U.S. midfielder Marie McCool said. “I love watching the attackers out there. They crushed it this weekend. I have no doubt they can do it. They’re so athletic, and they’re great riders. Also the defenders, I joke around that some of them have the best shot. It always goes in, because they’re not trying to shoot it as hard as they can. They’re just trying to place it. … Although it’s a midfielder’s game, you definitely have to have the mindset of some attackers and defenders on the field to keep that balance.”
Of course, some of the sport’s most dynamic players currently operate almost strictly within the confines of the restraining box. They may not play as prominent a role in the new discipline.
“For guys who are world-caliber players that are defensemen, they might not get a shot to play in the Olympics,” Manny said. “A guy like [two-time U.S. team defenseman] Tucker Durkin would not be good in that kind of style, because you have to be able to play some offense, unless you’re subbing all the time. You take away the pole from him, and it’s a completely different game.”
Said U.S. men’s assistant Seth Tierney: “As much as I love Trevor Baptiste and all those faceoff guys, you’re only going to take four faceoffs, so you’re probably not bringing a faceoff guy to the Olympics if it gets through. It’s not going to sway the end result.”
After a goal, the goalie immediately takes the ball out of the goal and has five seconds in which to restart play. Sometimes the team can start a fast break quickly, but defenders are learning to get back quickly after a score.
“You’re always thinking next play,” Mercer said. “The goalie clears the ball right out of the cage, and you’re trying to proactively think, what are you going to do next? You don’t have that time to walk back to the circle and get ready for the draw. You don’t have that mental reset. You have to learn as the game’s going and take your mental reset as you’re playing, which favors the full athlete and that mindset.”
Another rule change rewards the ball to whichever team did not touch it last when it goes out of bounds, and even a missed shot can result in a turnover if the goalie does not touch it. It does not matter who is closest to the ball when it goes out of bounds.
“It forces you to get a good shot off,” McCool said. “It’s very similar to basketball in my opinion.”
There were no shot clock violations in either Fall Classic exhibition played under the Olympic trial rules. Forty-five seconds proved to be more than enough, and perhaps too much, time to get a shot off.
“The shot clock could have been even lower,” U.S. attackman Marcus Holman said. “It could have been 30 seconds. I just like that sense where it’s non-stop action. It’s not like current international rules, where there’s no shot clock and you have no clearing time. It forces things to happen, and it forces you to take chances, maybe to make a pass you wouldn’t make or try a shot that you wouldn’t normally try.”
One of the more controversial changes does not allow collisions in the men’s game. The exhibition abided by that rule.
“It would have been a little more physical if there was something on the line,” Holman said.
Said Hossack: “They were aiming to prevent injuries, but I thought the ball moves quickly enough that there won’t be much contact. I don’t think they really needed to take it out.”
On the women’s side, the Olympic trial rules have evolved the concept of shooting space and placed the responsibility for safety on the shooter.
“We want to have the opportunity to play a more free-flowing style of lacrosse,” said Dana Dobbie, an athlete representative on the Blue Skies Working Group. “That’s what I was most excited about seeing, taking away shooting space, taking away three seconds, and allowing the female athletes to be as creative as possible and use their creativity and stickwork in a way we haven’t been able to do yet.”
The players are starting to adjust to the rules with more experience. The U.S. women played a WPLL all-star team last November using short-sided rules and have used them in intra-squad scrimmages.
For U.S. attacker Kayla Treanor, who said she used to enjoy getting stuck on defense off the draw or in transition when she played at Syracuse, the proposed rules represent a welcome change of pace.
“It’s very high-tempo,” she said. “You’re up and down. It’s just a couple shifts and you’re off. I would kind of compare it to hockey where you don’t play until you’re tired; you just play short shifts so you can get off and get back on. It was a lot fun. We’ve done it a couple times, so we’re getting used to it.”
Players said the games have looked better each time that they played. In the first half of each Fall Classic game, the teams played six-on-six, with all five field players from both teams going to the offensive and defensive ends. In the second half, the teams played seven-on-seven, including five-on-five on one end and a field player from each team remaining on the other.
“I really liked both [formats],” Treanor said. “A lot of people liked the second one better because it felt, I think, a little more like normal with someone holding. The first one looked a lot like hockey to me, or box. I liked it. I enjoyed playing it. It’s good for the game, and it’s good for the future of lacrosse.”
Proponents are optimistic that the new rules will help spread the game of lacrosse worldwide and push it to the ultimate goal of Olympic inclusion in 2028. It’s still taking some getting used to.
“I’m a traditionalist by nature, but if this is the only way to introduce lacrosse to the rest of the world, then this is the way that we should introduce lacrosse to the rest of the world,” said Tierney, also the head coach at Hofstra. “We’re going to hold onto our field game and what we love, and maybe one day this was the stepping stone to the Olympics for field lacrosse. At this point in time, this is the path that it has to go.”
Added Treanor: “I don’t know if that’s what I would want the exact final product to be. I think I’m in a different situation, too, because I’ll probably never be playing in the Olympics because I’ll be too old. This is the start. We have to start somewhere to get it there. It’s definitely not the same game. I’m not sure they’ve figured it out completely. Every time we do it, it gets a little better.”
Figuring out a set of rules that will work to broaden the appeal of lacrosse while preserving the integrity of the traditional men’s and women’s field disciplines has been a challenge. World Lacrosse and the Blue Skies Working Group will continue to absorb feedback after each trial that presents the discipline in live action.
“We’re trying to keep the aspects of the men’s that are unique to them, and the aspects of the women’s that are unique to us so you can see the difference between the two,” Dobbie said. “But at the same time, someone who’s never seen lacrosse and is watching an Olympic men’s game or an Olympic women’s game can see they’re the same sport. Collegiately and internationally, women’s lacrosse is completely different than men’s lacrosse. Being able to harmonize the two as much as possible, but then as well keeping what’s unique to each gender’s side of the sport within that, is so important.”
World Lacrosse is looking to finalize the rules for play in 2020 so that teams can begin to train for the World Games in 2021 in Birmingham, Ala., when the sport will be included for just the second time by the International World Games Association. The U.S. women’s team won a modified 10v10 version in the 2017 World Games in Poland.
“We are moving in the right direction,” World Lacrosse CEO Jim Scherr said. “We’re doing the right things that would allow us the best opportunity to get into the Olympic Games. From this point forward, we need to accelerate our pace, because the competition (other team sports vying for inclusion in the Olympic program) is working hard and moving more quickly than they ever have. It’s an incredibly competitive process with huge benefits for the sports at stake. We know that. We’re going in the right direction and we need to keep moving in this direction, but move more quickly.”
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