How Does Substitution Work In Lacrosse

Substitution plays an integral role in a lacrosse game. But as a beginner player, substitution is also one of the most confusing parts of a game. It’s embarrassing to admit the fact that it took several games in my early career to fully understand the procedure. 

To save you from embarrassment and confusion, in this post, you will learn how substitution works, how it impacts the game and any specific rules around substitution. 

In a gist, substitution in lacrosse is done on the fly without any timeout, similar to hockey but different from basketball. This requires players to act quickly as well as legally when subbing since time is of the essence. Players must quickly go on and off the field through the substitution area. Typically substitution switches one player at a time but it can switch multiple players simultaneously as well. 

If you haven’t noticed, substitution is an important part of a team’s strategy. If coaches can answer the questions of who, when and how to substitute well, they can potentially swing the pendulum back in their favor. Hence, as an aspiring player, you must have a good grasp of how substitution works.

Breakdown of the basic substitution procedure and rules

If you never played hockey or lacrosse before, the unique “subbing on the fly” rule might throw you off. Since I came from a soccer background, the first time I stepped inside the substitution area, I patiently waited for the official to blow the whistle. And you guessed it, the coach wasn’t happy. 

Subbing in lacrosse occurs fast. There’s no waiting but a smooth and seamless transition happening where lacrosse players go on and off per the instruction from the coaches.

How Does Substitution Work In Lacrosse

If you take out an official lacrosse field diagram, you see there’s a substitution area located at the center of a sideline. According to the rules, all substitutions have to be made via this box, aka substitution box. And players that are going onto the field must enter after their teammates that are going off the field have reached the substitution box. 

At the professional and NCAA level, the substitution area is 10 yards long. At the youth and NFHS level, the substitution area is 20 yards long. In fact, collegiate lacrosse had the 20 yards substitution box until a recent rule change took place in 2018. The rationale behind the change is, “the Men’s Lacrosse Rules Committee believes the change may allow for more transition opportunities.” You can read the full announcement here

Teams often utilize the full length of the box to sub on both offense and defense. This is very beneficial when one player can enter from one side of the box while the other player exits from the other side. It creates a great transition from offense to defense and vice versa. 

One rule that players and coaches have to keep in mind at all times is there can only be 10 players on the field from one team, so no matter how many players are going on and off, the number of players can be no more than 10. The rule allows less than 10 players but teams shouldn’t risk doing so since it gives the opponent a man up advantage. 

To give you a visual illustration of how subbing is done, watch this clip below.

Breakdown of advanced substitution strategy

As I mentioned before, subbing is a critical piece of a team’s strategy. If you watch the professional league or collegiate level games, there are many prime examples of how teams deploy different substitution strategies to seek an advantage. 

In this section, we will further investigate and learn how the best lacrosse players and teams implement an advanced substitution strategy to impact the game.

Midline Subbing

To accomplish a midline subbing, you simply exchange a player from the defensive zone with a player crossing over the midline. There are in general three components to subbing through the midline. 

During a clear, you first quickly sub out a defensive player for an offensive midfielder as a defensive middie carries the ball into the offensive zone. However, because the rule says you have to have four players in your defensive area at all times, the offensive middie can’t yet cross into the offensive zone. 

Then it comes the next component, after the d-middie who passes the ball to someone else, s/he runs quickly over the midline for the offensive middie to come into the offensive zone. The d-middie sprints through the substitution box; then exchanges with the defender. 

The same mechanic can also be done in reverse: sub out an attacker for a defensive player. 

Don’t worry if you didn’t get it the first time reading it. Watch this very helpful explanation video done by POWLAX.

Q&As on Substitutions

Now we have gone over the details of the basic and advanced substitution mechanics. I wanted to provide further explanations on some lingering questions you might still have. In this section, we will go over them.

How many players can be substituted every time?

Teams can substitute as many players as they like. There’s no rule on the maximum number of players in every substitution. However, in reality, it’s very rare to see teams subbing out more than two players at a time. 

Substitution has many impacts on the progression and transition of the game, so coaches are very strategic and methodical about substitution especially when a blunder can cost a turnover from the opponent.

Is there a limit to how many substitutions each team can make?

If substitution can place an edge over the opponent, you might wonder if there’s a limit to how many substitutions can happen in one game. 

Teams can substitute as many times as they like. But again a successful team shouldn’t rely mainly upon this one strategy. A seamless transition runs on a fast and accurate linkage between defensive and offensive players. Substitution should only be complementary to the core strategy that coalesces the players on the field.

Therefore, if you watch the professional level game, subbing takes place in a very intentional and strategic fashion. It doesn’t happen just for the sake of subbing out players.

How Does Substitution Work In Lacrosse

What positions get substituted the most?

Middies substitute off the field the most. Because middies are the ones who do the most running during a game. They can get tired pretty quickly so giving them the necessary water break is crucial. 

That said, not all middies get an equal amount of substitutions. If teams have designated offensive and defensive middies, they will have substitution every time the ball changes hands. If teams have more generalized middies, the teams will keep them on longer unless it’s for water breaks. 

Attackers and defenders rarely step off the field unless they are doing the midline subbing for two reasons. First, they don’t run as much. Second, when the ball is on the other half of the field they are able to take a breather.

Pro tips for beginners

If you read thus far, you have become a lacrosse substitution expert at least on paper. To put this knowledge into real action, I want to leave you with some actionable and valuable pro tips. Make sure to write them down or revisit this page from time to time so you don’t need to go through the embarrassment as I did. 

  • Always run on and off the field

No walking or jogging when subbing. The slow man loses. It’s very easy as a beginner to slow down your pace when you know you are going off the field. If that’s you, it’s going to change starting today. 

Next time during a game, remember what you read here: always run when subbing. 

  • Keep an eye out on your target who is subbing

Don’t ever let your target off the hook. Even if s/he is subbing, you have to be on them as long as they are still on the field. If makes sense, try to follow them. 

  • Listen to your coach and stay communicative with the team

When the game gets intense, beginner players tend to overlook the big picture and get absorbed into their corner of the game. Try to stay aware of the surroundings and learn to communicate with your team so that everyone stays on the same page. 

Keep an eye out on the sideline. If your coach is signaling you for a sub, run as quickly as you can through the box to complete the substitution.

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Adrian James
I am Adrian from Florida. After playing lacrosse for 15 years, I decided to start this website to share my journey and knowledge to help people get better at lacrosse.

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