What Makes a Lacrosse Stick Illegal (Heads, Shafts, Pocket)

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We’ve all been there—the referee focuses on YOU, minding your own business and looking anywhere but back at him because you know what’s coming. He has the tape measure in one hand and the ball in the other.

This is the anxiety-inducing stick check and it is never a zen-like ordeal for the player handing over their spoon. The majority of players keep their sticks just on the edge legality so it’s hard to not think “what if” at this moment.

What if my sidewalls loosened over the course of the game? What if all those face-offs left my head too pinched to still be legal? What if I over-massaged that pocket for a millimeter’s worth of extra hold?

Any player will tell you, it isn’t the easiest experience to be under the spotlight of a ref and there is no worse moment than getting a penalty that puts your team in a man-down situation. It also doesn’t help that the sport seems to adjust the stick rules every few seasons, but this is the reality of our sport.

The main two things that determine if your lacrosse stick is legal are the pocket and the head shape, but there are many other things you need to be aware of as well.

Today, we’ll walk you through how to make sure your stick is legal and what to focus on over the course of its use to make sure it remains that way. Unfortunately, once legal does not mean always legal as every stick experiences its own degree of warping over time and use.

So, without further adieu, let’s keep you out of the penalty box and your (legal) lacrosse stick in your hands.

Table of Contents

Lacrosse Head Rules

The one silver lining that came from the changing stick rules is that the high school (NFHS) and collegiate (NCAA) standards are now the same. Namely, requirements for a legal stick now match across these two main levels of lacrosse competition.

Within this now “universal” standard, you can pinch and further modify your head so long as it remains within this set threshold. But, again, you should always be triple checking your stick to make sure it remains legal throughout its use.

Men’s Lacrosse Head Rules

Here are the specific rules around men’s lacrosse heads:

Length. This is the distance measured from the outside of the head (the top arch) to the beginning of the throat (bottom of your pocket, closest to the shaft) and does not include the ball stop. This must be a minimum of 10 inches.

Pinch. This is the distance from sidewall to sidewall and is measured at the midpoint of the head, defined as being 5 inches from the start of the plastic head at the throat. This pinch can be no less than 3.5 inches. The throat should remain at least 3 inches wide as you descend from the midpoint to the ball stop/throat.

Width. This is the measurement across the top of your stick (the scoop) at its widest point. This length must be a minimum of 6 inches and can be 10 inches maximum.

lacrosse head rules width

Depth. This is the top of the sidewall to the bottom of the sidewall (face of the head to the back of the head). This can be no more than 2 inches wide on both sides of the head at any point on the sidewall.

Material. A head can be made of synthetic material (plastic), wood, or laminated wood.

Ball Stop. This is not a necessity for most modern sticks and is not a component of any stick check measurement. BUT, in the chance you are some old-school baller, a ball stop is required for any wood stick and must not exceed 0.25 inches in thickness.

Goalie Heads. The head cannot exceed 16.5 inches from top to bottom and should be between 10 and 12 inches at its widest point. The sidewalls may be no deeper than 2 inches.

Women’s Lacrosse Head Rules

Here are the rules for women’s lacrosse heads for all levels of play:

Length. This is the distance measured from the outside of the crosse head (the top arch) to the beginning of the throat (bottom of your pocket, closest to the shaft) and does not include the ball stop. This must be a minimum of 10 inches.

Pinch. This is the distance from sidewall to sidewall and is measured at the midpoint of the head, defined as being 5 inches from the start of the plastic head. This pinch can be no less than 3.1 inches (8 cm). The throat should remain at least 2.6 inches (6.7 cm) wide as you descend from the midpoint to the ball stop/plastic.

Width. The head of the lacrosse stick must be between 7 and 9 inches wide.

Depth. This is not dictated by an exact measurement but a test of the head to the lacrosse ball; the top of the lacrosse ball, when placed in the pocket, must remain above the top edge of the sidewall.

Material. A head can be made of synthetic material (plastic), wood, or laminated wood.

Ball Stop. Or the stop pad may not exceed 0.5 cm thickness.

Goalie. The size of the head mirrors that of the men’s game with the only deviation being the overall stick length which will be covered below.

Lacrosse Pocket Rules: What Makes a Pocket Illegal?

Men’s Lacrosse Pocket Rules

Given the mandate of manufacturers to follow the legal head dimensions as mandated by US Lacrosse, the more likely source of potential illegality is in your pocket.

Pockets are the most customizable component of a stick and the most likely to drift outside of legal standards. They are the most closely focused element in a stick check, that dreaded moment when the referee drops the ball into your pocket and gives it the old eye-and-slide test.

Material. A pocket can be comprised of gut, rawhide, linden, or synthetic material, including mesh and leather. Shooting strings can be cotton, synthetic, or hockey lace. The shape of a pockets’ pattern can range from a tight diamond to an old-school traditional string job.

Customizable Colors. This applies to your mesh pockets, strings, etc. You are free to customize these colors HOWEVER, you cannot manipulate said color to trick your opponent. The most direct example of this is painting a white circle on black mesh to create the appearance of a lacrosse ball in your stick.

Depth. The depth of the pocket is the most feared element when it comes to the stick check. Its depth should not exceed the size of an official lacrosse ball. Namely, the top of the ball should not be visible below the bottom of the sidewall at the deepest point in your pocket. This is that dreaded stick check test where the ref will hold your stick horizontal and zero in on your pocket with a keen eye for any daylight between sidewall and ball.

mens pocket depth check
A legal lacrosse pocket (no daylight between plastic and top of ball)

Pull Strings. When it comes to depth, hopefully you’re not one of those players that’s already thinking about gaming the system with pull strings. A pull string is a manner of stringing the bottom of a pocket to allow the tightness to be immediately adjustable by the player in anticipation of a stick check to manipulate a pocket to appear shallower than it is. Refs have become well aware to this technique and now look for it during stick checks.

Sidewall Strings. Only one sidewall string is allowed per side of the mesh. This should be an easy one to follow and not one that you should be motivated to break as more than a single string makes the task of stringing a sidewall much more difficult.

Shooting Strings. Shooting strings may be woven through the top 4 inches of the head from the crosse/scoop and may not have excess material hanging more than 2 inches off the head. This makes the previously popular “U” and “V” shooting strings illegal.

Retention Test. This is the moment in the stick check where the ref will tilt your stick with the ball in the pocket to monitor any “catch” to its movement in your head. If the ball fails to fall out of your head when tilted vertically and horizontally 90 degrees, then your head will be deemed illegal. You can see more about how this works in the video below:

Flat Table Test. As lacrosse heads have taken on more of an offset angle to maximize power and speed, this test has come more and more under the radar. The rule is simple: lay your stick flat, facedown on a table. The furthest point from said tabletop to the stick head cannot exceed 2.75 inches.

Women’s Lacrosse Pocket Rules

The pocket is where a woman’s lacrosse head most clearly diverges from the male game as it is much shallower to compensate for the lack of physicality in the sport. Keep in mind that these rules shift more so for the women’s game at the youngest levels and the regulations covered here are meant for competitions ages 12 and up.

Material. The women’s game recently expanded allowable pocket material into the same familiar mesh of the men’s game after previously relying solely on traditional strings. Mesh can be a full setup or a runner supplemented with traditional strings along either side.

Spacing. No matter the type of string job/material, there may be no holes or gaps in the stringing that exceed 1.5 inches. This is something refs will look for during a stick check.

Customizable Colors. As with the men’s rules, customizable elements are allowed in a woman’s pocket but cannot be designed in a manner to visually and purposefully deceive an opponent.

Depth. This is the most clear distinction from the men’s game as the women’s pocket must be much shallower. This is looked for in the exact inverse of the men’s stick during a stick check. Namely, the pocket depth must allow at least some portion of the ball to be visible over the head’s sidewall when the stick is held perfectly horizontal.

This will be checked for on both the front and back of the net during a stick check; in both cases, the ball must break the plane of the top rail of your head to be deemed legal.

Pull Strings. As with the men’s lacrosse head rules, this manipulation of depth is not allowed and will be looked for during a stick check.

This brings us to one of the most consistent questions about the women’s game: why do scorers immediately drop their stick after a goal? Scoring players are required to immediately drop their stick after a goal as now written in the rules of the game to ensure that there is no manipulation of their pocket prior to a stick check.

Shooting Strings. Shooting strings may be anywhere within 4 inches of the crosse/scoop but must be attached directly to your head’s sidewall plastic. This is meant to limit flexing at the top of the head which can create more speed on throws and shots.

Lower Levels. Women’s pockets at the 8 and up level of the sport have no regulation on the depth of a pocket. This means that young players can have as deep of a pocket as they desire while on the field until they reach the age of 10. At 10 and up, players are required to keep a partially shallow pocket with a portion of the ball required to be visible over the bottom rail of the head. This goes even shallower at the age of 12 when the depth adjusts to the manner covered above.

Lacrosse Shaft Rules

Now, we move down your spoon to the shaft where we’ll cover the main rule (length) and some of the smaller restrictions/mandates you may not be aware of.

Length. The total length of a men’s lacrosse stick (shaft + head) is between 40 – 42 inches for attack and short stick midfielders and 52 – 72 inches for defensive long poles and LSM’s. For men’s goalies, their sticks can be between 40 – 72 inches.

For the women’s game, sticks can be between 35.5 – 43.25 inches total across the board for field players (there is no differentiation between offensive and defensive players). Women’s goalies can be between 35.5 – 52 inches.

Butt End. This is the end of your shaft opposite the head. Rules in both the men’s and women’s game dictate that there cannot be any exposed bare metal at this end of your stick. Rules have changed to how this end may be covered, now requiring a manufactured end cap to be placed over this metal. Solely taping or performing any similar coverage in lieu of an end cap is no longer allowed in the rules. You may cover the end cap in tape but should leave the very bottom of it visible.

Tape. Tape cannot touch any point of the head, including the neck to which the head and shaft attach. Refs will look for this during stick checks and, if it is found, will rule your stick illegal. If you are trying to supplement for a loose head, you should look into purchasing a more compatible head for your shaft or vice versa, or test out a different screw for the connection.

Penalties for Failing a Lacrosse Stick Check

Failing a stick check for violating any of the above elements will result in a 1 to 3-minute non-releasable penalty for the offending player. For those new to the game, non-releasable penalties mean that the offending player will not be released from the penalty if the opposing team scores prior to the conclusion of the penalty period.

Depth issues with the pocket will result in the 1-minute penalty and the stick may continue to be used so long as the pocket is corrected. All other violations result in a 3-minute penalty and will disqualify any further use of the offending stick for the remainder of the game.

Certain elements such as the lack of an end cap or excess shooting string may receive a warning for correction prior to any penalty being levied. These will be penalized if the issue is not corrected following the warning.

If a goal-scorer is found to have an illegal stick in the stick check following a goal, the goal will be disallowed. An illegal stick for the scoring player is the only case in which a goal will be waived off, but this does not include the lack of an end cap or excess shooting string.

Photo credit: Flickr

About Author

Picture of Dave Rathmanner

Dave Rathmanner

Dave is the founder of Lax Drip. In his 15+ years of playing lacrosse, he always had trouble figuring out which gear to buy without a reliable and trustworthy gear review site—so he created the resource he always wished he had. Dave has played lacrosse at the high school, college, and adult levels and continues to play to this day.

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