Upon transitioning the ball from defense to offense teams will get into the phase of the game known as their set-offense, otherwise known as their offensive system. For beginners (8-16 year olds), this is a very simple set of goals/objectives on offense (different for each age group), usually taught within the framework of the “motion offense,” which is the most basic offensive system and ultimately the focus of this blog.
A team’s set-offense should not start until all 5 players are generally in their set positions, which for our purposes are the 5 standard offensive positions. This is a big problem at the grassroots level where often two players have not even entered the offensive zone and individual players are going one-on-one against 5 defenders, trying to set up “their shot.” The concept of “team offense” refers to working together as a group, in unison.
The first look in any offensive system is fundamentally the give-and-go. The ball gets passed to a certain area of the floor and then you move (“cut”), and if in that process you are “wide open,” the ball should in theory be passed back to you. Heck, if somebody is wide open at any point you should be giving them the ball, which is an offensive fundamental that has to do with players having their head up and seeing the floor whenever they are in the offensive zone.
The “motion offense” is a system that relies on getting the ball low (to the “crease position”) and then sending a series of cutters in a particular order (timing), with the ball carrier carrying the ball high and shooting, if no options present themselves.
The principles of the motion offense in box lacrosse & how to teach it most effectively has been a difficult task that has taken years to organize, amidst much of the scattered misinformation that surrounds it, never seeming to be fully or adequately explained.
Here is my best attempt…
The most basic motion (Look #1) happens after the point player (strong-side) passes to either shooter and then cuts the middle, eventually filling into the strong-side crease position (perhaps running around the net first). If this player is wide open they could in theory receive a “give-and-go,” but that is rarely the case.
Next, the crease player should pop-out and the ball should then be passed low (deep), triggering Motion/Look #2 which is an off-ball "cut" from the far-side shooter position; this is the first read/look for the new ball carrier. After the off-ball shooter cuts they will either receive a pass, or if not fill into the crease position on the far-side, with the crease player filling up into the shooter position on that side of the floor.
If no pass is made, Motion/Look #3 is the next decision for the ball carrier to read, which is a cutter from the player at ball-side (same-side) shooter position, who looks for a give-and-go return pass; otherwise to seal the shooter position, or down-pick the crease position (these are the “age dependant” variables).
If none of those "looks" are open for the ball carrier they should fill/cycle up into the shooter position and take a shot (if it's there) or swing the ball to the far-side shooter/point (Motion/Look #4), repeating the process (if advanced); otherwise being free to go one-on-one. Throughout this process it is the ball carrier’s responsibility to have their head up, always being a threat.
I like to do my first walk through, and teach the principles of the motion offense, by “triggering” it with a pass from the point player to the weak-side shooter. A pass to the strong-side is a harder give-and-go return pass to catch (cross body), yet both are practiced in this first drill, with players encouraged to switch who they pass to each time through the line at point. Both of these passes (weak-side & strong-side) are also important in subsequent drills, and this is great practice for beginners in popping out to receive the pass, while also working on soft hands and disguising their passes.
The first legitimate threat in the motion offense happens after the ball gets passed (or run) low, to the crease position; at which point the off-ball shooter needs to cut through the middle. It’s important to reiterate that the ball doesn’t necessarily have to be passed low in a game/practice, as once the defense catches on they may start locking off this pass. It is also important to note that the off-ball cutter usually takes some sort of physical beating while cutting, and a good defender won’t just let you do whatever you want. In this drill and the one to follow, the “next step” is to add a coach or volunteer defender that you must cut past, either overtop or underneath.
After the ball gets passed low, the on-ball cutter must learn to “delay” for a half second, which allows for the off-ball cutter to get through the middle, in theory. This speaks to the timing of the motion offense, the off-ball cutter needs to leave as soon as the ball is low, and the on-ball cutter should leave as soon as the off-ball cutter is beginning to exit the middle. The on-ball cutter then attempts to cut overtop, or underneath their check (imaginary or voluntary), and if they were open they should in theory receive the ball.
On-ball is where the magic happens! Again, it’s always going to be a fight to the middle when you are cutting. If I pass it low and then need to get around Graeme Hossack for a give-go-pass, which is the premise of the drill above, that’s likely not going to happen. That said, there are two other options “on-ball” within the motion offense: set a down pick at the crease position (most common), or set a screen at the shooter position (least common). For advanced players, they would read the situation and choose the best option. For first-timers, the extent of your set offense is usually a simple down pick on the weak-side, but not until that off-ball cutter is through, which takes a lot of practice...
I’m not about to walk you through how to properly execute the pick & roll, which will be the focus of a future blog. I will tell you however, that I’ve done a lot of exploring on best practice for team offense in minor lacrosse.
Two summers ago I was at my former teammate’s wedding, he also happens to be my business partner’s brother, Nathan Sanderson. I got chatting with uncle Shane when I was there; Shane is one of the 4 infamous Sanderson brothers from Orangeville in the 70’s/80’s. He is also a long-standing coach in Orangeville minor lacrosse, including the head coach of their 12U rep team that has only lost one game in the last three seasons at the top level in Ontario. So I took the opportunity to ask him about how he went about running his offense? He got telling me a story about “The Peterborough Pick” and how they were always pushing the ball for fast breaks in transition, and that if no opportunity presented itself that they would run the ball deep to the far-side and immediately send a down-pick As that was happening the off-ball players would be cutting and cycling (perhaps coming from the bench on a line change). That was the whole offense! Down picks, with off ball cutters...Sound familiar?
People can generally only remember 2-3 things in their working memory at at any given time, so “sealing at the shooter position” is something I wouldn’t normally discuss until players have demonstrated some sort of mastery with give & go’s and down-picks; otherwise if these actions are no longer working against regular opponents.
Again, I am not going to discuss proper sealing technique, only to say that as players get more familiar with the skills and concepts within the motion offense, eventually this on-ball cutter situation becomes a “read” by the ball carrier at the crease position, as opposed coaching players to seal the shooter every single time they pass it low on offense, which is the object of the drill above. Start with an imaginary defender and then advance to a volunteer defender, which give player a better “feel” for the situation.
Drill #6 - Six Nations Shuffle
If none of the above options were open the ball carrier would carry high and shoot (which is another drill in our Shooting Series), otherwise swing it to the far side or perhaps pass to somebody who got open off of an off-ball pick after their cut (another advanced concept). At this point, players on both sides (on-ball/off-ball) would have done a full cycle/exchange of relative positions.
This “Six Nations Shuffle” is a great drill in that it allows you, as the coach, to ask for different patterns of the above mentioned drills; both on ball and off-ball working together in unison (getting a feel for the timing). There are so many variations you could do off of this drill set-up and it involves everyone in the offense (except the hypothetical point player who is the first to cut through the middle).
You could ask for the same pattern every time, or, if they are really good, you can change it up every time. Players both on ball and off-ball could either cycle (cut) through, seal or pick; the ball carrier has the option to pass to whoever they want, or to a specified person for beginners. Advanced players can get creative with how they finish after several passes.
Shout out to Scott Martin, a Mohawk man from Six Nations, who used this drill as a way to teach the concepts of team offense to one of our groups when he was out here in Nova Scotia helping coach, back in 2015.
There’s no point in trying to teach this stuff if people can’t pass and catch, which is why all of the blogs in this series have been on the fundamentals of lacrosse up until now. This is really the first time players are asked to “think and play” while on offense, instead of just playing “jungle ball.”
The motion offense should be used as a framework to teach the basic skills and concepts of offense, which always apply regardless of which system is being played. With the motion offense in particular, the rules should be slowly relinquished throughout the course of the players development, with the end goal of being able to play within a Freelance Offense by the time you finish your minor lacrosse experience. It is a give & take relationship between the coach and the players, and sometimes if players continually go too far off-script, they will need to be held accountable.
Although to freelance literally means “to work for yourself, with no allegiance to anyone,” a successful freelance offensive system actually still has set team rules to provide structure and balance on the floor (developed based on team personnel + individual skill-sets).
Freelance is the style of offense that is used most often in Junior & Senior “box” lacrosse, promoting swinging the ball, plenty of motion, pick-and-roll game; and limited in its use of set-plays (except where trying to utilize the best attributes of the teams most skilled players). In other words “pass, pick, pop/roll, replace, cut, shoot” as Casey Powell describes it. Spread the defense by staying wide, while also adjusting your position to help create open passing lanes and seizing opportunities to be a threat; both on ball and off-ball. Avoid the temptation to creep towards the ball, and do not allow the off-ball defenders to sag and stand in help positions; keep them engaged with hard work and tenacity.
From there, offensive players should be watching the positioning of their offensive teammates in order to help with the timing of the “cycle” or set-play, being mindful of proper spacing. They should also be watching the positioning/personnel of the defensive players, exploiting weaknesses and watching for opportunities to get open for a high percentage shot on goal (i.e. following slides, back-cutting defenders, etc.). All players on the floor need to be involved/engaged in order for there to be any sort of continuity or "flow" to high level team offense. If you are not moving your feet you are not involved. Furthermore, an offense that doesn't get open in the middle, will not be successful in the long run.
For further interest in offensive systems which still apply the same rules and concepts of the motion offense, please also see the Dingo’s Mid-Board Cycle & Linds’ Drive Down Cycle.