In an effort to keep expanding the sport of lacrosse and appealing to new participants, many leading organizations having begun thinking outside of the traditional parameters of the game.
They are learning that slightly modified versions of the sport can help remove some of the most commonly cited barriers to participation, such as cost, access, field space, and qualified coaching.
A relatively new movement, called small-sided lacrosse or 6’s Lacrosse, has emerged. Fundamentally, it’s lacrosse played by fewer members on each team and on a smaller field. It still involves the basic skills associated with the traditional version of the game – passing, shooting, scooping, cradling – but offers many alternatives that further ease the entry into participation for newcomers of all ages.
Panelists from various corners of the lacrosse community joined moderator Erin Smith, the senior director for sport development at US Lacrosse, to discuss this evolution of the game during LaxCon 2021.
“As we start moving around the world, it’s very difficult for emerging nations to put together a traditional sized team, or even to build a league, because of the lack of participation,” said TJ Buchanan, director of sport development for World Lacrosse, the international federation for men’s and women’s lacrosse. “By providing a smaller format, it makes it much more accessible to those new and emerging markets.”
The membership of World Lacrosse approved official rules for a 6v6 discipline during its General Assembly meeting last November. The appeal of small-sided play, however, in not limited to international participants.
In 2020, US Lacrosse also unveiled a small-sided version of the game, called Flex6 Lacrosse, which is slightly different than World Lacrosse’s 6v6 format. Flex6 is designed to be a fun, fast-paced, and non-contact version of lacrosse that can be played by any mix of players up to six per team.
While US Lacrosse has standardized and approved guidelines for Flex6, this version of lacrosse offers flexibility to many of the elements of play, including field size, location (indoor or outdoor), mixed or single gender teams, and scoring options.
Perhaps the most notable contrast between Flex6 and World Lacrosse is that the former is played without a goalie, while WL’s 6v6 format, for both men and women, requires a goalie on the field at all times.
Flex6 Lacrosse was inspired by the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model (LADM) and its six core values.
“We wanted to keep creating different avenues and pathways to play,” said Lauren Davenport, manager of athlete development at US Lacrosse. “This is a more fluid version of the game that doesn’t require as much equipment but is still approved by US Lacrosse.”
Davenport noted that Flex6 is designed as a playing option for all age groups.
“It’s not just focused on youth, but can be used from youth to adult play,” she said. “Flex6 feeds into our purpose for athlete development, which is life-long participation in sport. We want to engage all audiences.”
Joel Franklin, an event manager for HALO Lax, says that his organization is quickly seeing adoption of the small-sided version of lacrosse in the U.S. markets where it’s been introduced. HALO Lax has branded its small-sided version as 6onLax.
“We’re seeing participation from third-graders up to high school, both boys and girls, and we found that the biggest benefit was in having a unified-gender field and rules that make the game easier to understand, learn, officiate, and coach” he said. “That removes the barriers and creates greater access for everyone to play.”
While widespread adoption of the small-sided game is an on-going process, Franklin reports that an initial time investment for education appears to be paying solid dividends.
“We found that we are spending a considerable amount of time, pre-event, in educating and explaining the game to help shorten the learning curve and generate interest,” Franklin said. “Subsequently, we’re really happy to report that 99-percent of those who played 6onLax want to come back and play it again. Once they play it, they love it.”
Franklin said that his company has seized on a pretty simple motto.
“By making the game smaller, we can make the sport larger,” he said.
For many enthusiasts, the desire to make the sport larger also includes a return to the world’s biggest international stage for competition, the Olympics. It’s become clear that the smaller version of the game may be the key to eventually reaching that goal.
“The Sixes format lends itself very well to our hopes and ambitions for inclusion in the Olympic Games,” Buchanan said. “The trend in the Olympic movement is toward smaller rosters and less financial impact on the Games, so the Sixes format makes a lot of sense.”
That doesn’t mean that World Lacrosse, or US Lacrosse, will dismiss the traditional versions of the men’s and women’s games. The newest discipline is intended as a supplement to the current formats, not as a replacement.
“One of the misconceptions is that Sixes is meant to replace the traditional model of the game, and that’s simply not the case” Buchanan said. “It’s an ‘and’ option, not an ‘or’ option. We’re not asking anyone to forego the current disciplines in which they are participating.”
In fact, the panelists all agreed that participation in small-sided play offers the cross-over benefits of enhancing an individual’s skills and making them a stronger player in the more traditional formats of lacrosse.
“When we look at the Sixes model, where everybody is playing offense and everyone is playing defense, we’re developing a much more well-rounded lacrosse athlete,” Buchanan said. “When that player transitions into the box game or into the traditional field game, all of those experiences from that free flowing, constantly-engaged participation will only benefit them in the other disciplines.”
As a catalyst for greater accessibility, growth of the game, player development, and greater international recognition, small-sided play may become a fixture on the lacrosse landscape.
“Small-sided lacrosse preserves the essence of the game and still offers fun and competition,” Davenport said. “We think it meets many needs for the lacrosse community.”