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Offense in Lacrosse: Plays, Sets & Principles

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Coaching offense in lacrosse can take many forms. How much should you prescript vs allowing players to "just play" or freelance?

Offense in Lacrosse: plays, sets, and Principles

I believe there is a spectrum of control as an offensive coach ranging from plays, to sets, to principles-based offense. Striking the balance along this spectrum can be a challenge, and it may depend on the players you have and their capabilities as well as the time you have to implement with them. Let's dive in a bit deeper.

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Pre-designed actions that are drawn up to place certain people in spots, generate an order of looks, and can be used out of timeouts, end of game or need a goal situations, and to the highest degree, every time a team comes down on offense. These can be drawn up into an ever growing “playbook”.


I view sets as simple formations (Open, 1-4-1, 2-3-1, Umbrella, 4-3, 5-2, 2-3-2) that are in place to give men’s or women’s players guidance on our starting positions as we trigger offense. Often times coaches will reference certain spots they want to trigger from, general motions that players should take in different spots, and reads that dodgers/decision makers should be looking for based on where slides come from. Teams can range from operating out of several sets, or have a primary set (i.e., Virginia men’s 2-2-2) and how many different sets they utilize my vary based on success rate, defensive tendencies, or team strengths year over year. Some people might call these sets motions, but there tends to be some guided action.


Principles-based offense, in my view, is an offense with less structure and falls heavily on players reading and reacting with and without the ball. What principles are we keying on on ball? 1v1 initiations or 2-man game; we can also choose which areas of the field we want to initiate this action from.  What principles are we emphasizing off ball? We can drill and discuss how we want to implement principles like fading, cutting, shallow cuts, mirrors, off ball pick action, shot selection, etc. This combination of on-ball and off-ball principles allows athletes to play more freely off of each other through these common principles we discuss and drill.

This could potentially be viewed as a pure basketball-like motion where you have your few principles/concepts and rules you try to focus on, and then let the players completely play. There are no sets, limited set plays/looks, and the players read and react. I think the big issues here can result from players lacking experience, not having enough guidance in a "freelance" type system, and how you're training players to play like this.

As we’ve established those 3 potential buckets (there may be more and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts), we need to think as coaches about where we want to fall, and how we implement. What happens when it doesn’t look good early on?  What is our messaging to players and our response?

As players, we need to think about that kind of freedom. While it often isn't our choice,  is that we want? What do we need to get there? If we get the freedom, how do we handle it?  If things don’t go well in a game, where do we point the finger?

I think trust between players and staff is a huge element to finding this type of success. I would say many coaches want to be somewhere between sets and principles-based, with a couple set plays. However, when the game gets tight, or the turnovers or mistakes start to pile up, how quickly do we head towards “plays”. If the players aren’t moving off ball, or aren’t getting it, how quickly do we slap the reins on our players? 

Growing Pains

In my opinion, if you want to land somewhere between sets and principles-based at your core, which is what I believe in, you have to deal with the growing pains every season. In college, at Duke, we were viewed with this  “Duke in February” lens. Were we trying to lose early season games? No. However, I do truly believe Coach Danowski leaned into the growth mindset of early season games. We didn’t head into February with a massive playbook and this set roster that would never change. He believed in the power of the early season development. When times got tough, it was time to dig into the stuff holding individuals and the group chemistry back. It was challenging because it was always a very critical inwards reflection. Has that changed since 2016? Maybe, maybe not. As coaches we need to double down on reads and decision-making, and trust that the chemistry will build and develop, versus slapping on more plays and calls. If we want to have a more read and react set, motion, or principles based offense, we have to empower those running it - the players!

I’ve heard from some of my athletes and parents over the years about different teams offenses and schemes. Are they too play-focused? Possibly. Are the drills they’re doing week-to-week suboptimal to improve decision making? Maybe. But the point that often gets missed is that at the end of the day, the players on the field have to go out, win matchups, move off-ball, and put the ball in the back of the net. There is no magic offense or magic set that is going to be a cure all. You don’t want your coaching staff to script 20-30 plays to run. Earn the trust & freedom. Hold your teammates accountable. Get better at your reads and decision making. Improve your shot selection. Make defenses work off ball. Keep the ball hot. Step up, look inwards, and hold yourself accountable! These are simple principles that players need to buy into to have a successful offense regardless of set. 

I will be helping out St. Paul’s School for Girls in my 2nd year again this year, and I’m excited to develop and build off of last year. How can we operate within a few sets, improve our decision making and principles/concepts, and execute!

I hope you found this helpful and if you are ever looking for mentorship or program consulting, please let us know!


- Coach Class



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