If you are new to lacrosse and/or your child is just starting out, acquiring a lacrosse stick will be fairly high on your list of things to do. After all, this is probably the most "personal" of lacrosse equipment and the sticks provided by organizations are typically the least expensive (and harder to use) models.
However, if you know nothing about the current state of lacrosse sticks, where do you start?
Hopefully this section will help. We'll cover what stick types are out there, what pocket materials are and how they differ, the different types of shafts, what rules apply to sticks and finally how to break in your new stick.
NOTE - If you are new to lacrosse and do not have the patience to wade through all the information here, or if you have already purchased a stick, PLEASE! at a minimum read the bottom section on BREAKING IN A STICK.
When you are first starting out you will likely purchase a "complete" stick, that is, the combination of a shaft, head and stringing as supplied by the manufacturer. This is a great way to start out since it removes some potentially confusing variables right up front. However there are good "complete" sticks for a starter, some "not so good" and some which are "illegal" for organized play. We'll touch on these below.
As a player gains experience, each component of a stick (head, stringing or "pocket", shaft) is far more likely to be purchased separately, with the "stick" being a combination of preferences for each component, perhaps from different manufacturers and with the player doing the actual stringing of the pocket. When we discuss "sticks" below, we will actually be discussing these individual components.
For the new player, the most important aspects of a stick will be:
The pocket adjustment/break in;
The head/pocket stringing combination.
The shaft - as long as it is legal for organized play - will be relatively unimportant for most beginning and intermediate players.
Be forewarned however, as a player grows into the sport the "need" for the latest and greatest stick technology can be overwhelming!
It is important to note that the success of any stick for an individual player will ultimately end up being a subjective matter. What feels "right" to one player may not feel "right" to another. A player gaining in experience may need to go through several head and shaft combinations before the right combination is found.
Many years ago, traditional lacrosse sticks were constructed of a one-piece wooden shaft/head with leather and catgut strings for the pocket. You've probably seen this type of stick (as shown at right) - you may even own one. While they are still being made today (the model at right is available from Mohawk International), they are not approved for NCAA use and are generally not recommended for today's player - if you break the shaft, the stick is done for.
As advances in plastic materials worked their way into the sports field, lacrosse sticks were "split" between a head and a shaft, which is what you see today in almost all lacrosse sticks on the market. Since shafts can ding, bend and break, this also allows the player to retain the head and buy a new shaft only (or vice versa). The shafts can be made of wood, metal or composites while the heads are made of plastic. As well, advances have been made in materials for the pockets (see below) which means the manufacturers now have options beyond the "traditional" pocket which dominated the wooden sticks.
What is "head offset"? When reviewing the current market for plastic heads, you'll see the term "offset" frequently used. In the picture below, note heads A, B and C:
The head marked "A" has no offset, that is the top plane of the head (as viewed from the side) is level with the shaft. Head B"" has a slight offset, in that the plane of the head starts to dip "below" the plane of the shaft. The Head marked "C" has further offset still. An offset head sometimes can improve the "feel" of the stick in terms of both catching and ball release when throwing, and may help with getting in proper position for ground balls.
Head Interchangeability - What about a head from manufacturer A and a shaft from manufacturer B? Almost all "current" heads will fit all "current" shafts from different manufacturers. There are slight differences which may make the fit tighter or looser for any given combination, but for the most part you can make a head fit a shaft from a different manufacturer.
What about breaking a head? As a general rule, most manufacturers will warrant a head against breakage due to a manufacturing defect. Sometimes if you break a head it will be covered, sometimes not depending on the circumstances, the retailer and the manufacturer. Under this scenario as a player moves up and plays in more competitive games and tournaments, it may become important to own a backup stick in the event a stick breaks during a game.
As head technology advanced, so did pocket technology. Today's player has a choice of not only pocket materials but also pocket construction and design. Note the picture to the right - from left to right we have a dura (or "hard") mesh pocket with a "U" channel, a mega-mesh pocket with a "V" channel, a traditional pocket and then a soft mesh pocket with three shooting strings. These are a few standard offerings, but players the world over have created thousands of custom pocket designs to their liking.
What is important in a pocket?
A pocket needs to provide both "feel" (generally meaning some stiffness) when the ball hits it during catching and at the same time allow the player to quickly release the ball during throwing. This is easier to feel in a stick than to describe it! A very stiff or very soft stringing job will generally not provide a player with a sufficient pocket.
A quick side note: Much of the catching and throwing process depends on "feel", which is a combination of the head, the pocket and the weight of a standard lacrosse ball in the pocket. When sponge balls are used, it may actually be harder for the player to throw and catch due to the lack of "feel" when the ball is in the pocket!
Which pocket material to choose?
This pocket is still very popular today, and consists of nylon strings "woven" throughout leather straps. There are countless variations of stringing the nylon through the leather, and this can be a fun pocket for the player to string themselves. The combination of the stiffer leather and the flexible nylon gives a nice combination of being able to "feel" the ball hit and expand the pocket and allowing the flexibility for a quick ball release when throwing.
Probably the most popular pocket material today. It retains it's shape when wet or dry and retains the "feel of resistance" which is important to feel the ball in the stick. Comes in several types, styles, colors and hardness.
Soft mesh is the easiest to start playing with right away but may require more shooting strings (see picture below) than other materials due to it's "flimsy" nature. Also tough to use when wet.
All types of mesh come in different configurations, meaning the number of "diamonds" across the width of the mesh. "Standard" mesh typically has 10 diamonds across the width. "Monster mesh" may have only 7 diamonds, and some manufacturers actually make 6, 7, 8 and 10 diamond meshes. The differences are subtle enough that it will be completely up to the individual player which they prefer.
Most sticks come with two or three shooting strings (see picture below) which basically guide the ball out of the pocket when thrown. The idea is that each successive string guides the ball a bit more out of the pocket as the ball is thrown. If the shooting strings are too loose you will get "whip" in the stick, which typically will cause the ball to head downwards. Adjusting the shooting strings is critical to a good pocket, if you need help in this area, check with an experienced player or coach.
There are all kinds of permutations and combinations of pocket materials, and if you wish to make up and string your own feel free!
Today's lacrosse player has a far and wide choice of shafts. From a $10 aluminum shaft to a $20 hickory shaft to a $50 lightweight alloy shaft to a $100 composite shaft on up to a $200 specialized lightweight alloy shaft.
Needless to say, the beginning to intermediate player will do just fine with the lower cost, heavier and more durable shafts. As a player progresses and moves up the competitive ladder, the lightweight and specialized shafts can be considered.
A few things to note however:
Lots of experienced players continue to use the inexpensive aluminum shafts throughout their playing careers;
Shafts are subject to bending and breaking and they generally are not covered by warranty - if you break a $200 shaft, you start over.
Should I shorten my son or daughters shaft?
Boys sticks typically come with one of three shaft lengths "off the shelf". The attack/middie shaft length (with head) makes the stick a little over 41" long. The defense shaft length (with head) makes the stick 72" or less. Goalie sticks are in between.
While the HS/NCAA minimum stick length is 40", the RALL league in which we play has no minimum. For K through 3rd grade boys, a total stick length of 36" to 39" will probably work well. As players get larger and closer to the 5th/6th grade level, they should have a stick length approaching or at 40".
The RALL league stipulates "long poles" can only be used on defense at the 5th/6th grade boys level. This means that K-4th grade players should have a stick no longer than 41" or so. By RALL rulse, when in 5th/6th grade, the total stick length cannot exceed the players height.
Girls sticks are less sensitive to length. Most can be used effectively right off the shelf. Since the girls cradling motion is more upright, it is important not to have a stick that is too short. Very young girls may consider cutting down the stick a few inches but from 3rd/4th grade on up the stock length should be fine.
Various rules are in place to ensure that players are using basically the same stick setup at the same age levels during organized play.
Stick Length: Men's rules call for stick lengths of 40 to 72 inches. Youth lacrosse will typically let younger players use down to a 37 inch stick. "Long poles", or sticks over 42" are allowed in the 5th/6th grade boys divisions and above.
Lacrosse Heads: Lacrosse sticks have come a LOOOOONG way from the original wood and leather stick, but now it seems like there are a million different types of heads, which leads to the age old question "Which one do I pick?" It's true there are a TON of different lacrosse heads on the market, but you need to pick one that is right for YOUR style of play and position because YOU want to have the correct equipment when going into battle. When choosing a head, you must remember: "its not the wand, its the magician." But hopefully this guide can atleast point you into the right direction.
Head Classification: Tradtional: These are heads that are only allowed in Youth and High School, such as the STX Stallion and Brine Clutch
Universal: These are typically heads ending in U or X. These heads, such as the Clutch Elite X and the Super Power U, can be used at any level; High School or College. These sticks meet requirements of both NCAA and NFHS rule books.
NCAA: These heads are specifically designed for the NCAA and have a narrower scoop and standard 3 inch throat design. Examples include the Brine Clutch X6 or Warrior Evo X6
Pocket Depth: In the photo below, note the gray arrow on head "B". The rule regarding pocket depth for a boys stick states that when a ball is placed in the stick that there can be no space viewed where the arrow is pointing. That is, the top of the ball cannot be below the bottom of the sidewall. For the girls game, the top of the ball must be able to be seen above the top of the sidewall. This means the girls are allowed a dramatically shallower pocket than the boys. Any of you boys who think you have superior stick skills - try playing with a girls stick!
When you first purchase a stick - particularly a boys stick - it will not be "broken in" yet, that is, it's not ready for play. All pockets need to be broken in to some extent, but some are far easier than others.
As with all things, there is a price to be paid for ease of use.
The easiest pocket to break in will be a soft mesh pocket, Once the sidewall strings are loosened up a bit the pocket will be fairly "stretched" and a player can probably start using the stick right away. The downside to soft mesh is it's "lack of feel" and when it gets wet it is very tough to play with.
The pocket materials with "better feel" are typically your hard (or "dura") mesh or the traditional pocket with leathers and nylon. Leather is also subject to differences in feel and size when wet, which has led many of today's players to use the hard mesh pocket material.
There are wide variations in what a given manufacturer will consider "hard" - the hard mesh from Shamrock for instance is fairly close to a soft mesh, while the hard mesh from Warrior, STX and Brine are fairly hard.
So how to break in a hard mesh or traditional pocket?
Method A - Loosen up the sidewall strings and pound the pocket with a ball in hand. This is a bit of a pain and can take a fair amount of time. Once the pocket is somewhat stretched, the best next step is to play wall ball, bouncing the ball off a brick wall and catching it in the pocket.
There are items called "pocket pounders" which are essentially a ball attached to the end of a shaft, This makes it easier on your hands to pound the "ball" into the pocket.
There are also items called "pocket stretchers", which you set in the stick and then turn a screw to stretch out the pocket. Leave it this way for a day or two and the mesh will be stretched out fairly well.
Keep in mind that as the mesh begins to stretch you may have to re-tighten the sidewall strings to keep the pocket legal as show above.
Girls sticks require little if any break in due to the shallow nature of the pocket, and almost all girls sticks are strung with the traditional method.
For boys sticks, you want the ball to settle in the middle of the pocket when the stick is held horizontally, with the top of the ball just over the bottom of the sidewall. This is a good starting position, but keep in mind as long as the pocket is legal, the player may prefer other variations.