After the defense makes a stop and regains possession of the ball, the team next needs to run The Clear.
In lacrosse, clearing means to get the ball from the defense to the offense. An ideal clear leads to a fast break scoring chance against the opponent and there are many reasons most clears can be relatively automatic. You and your team will soon notice if you are making failed clears, however, in the intangibles of momentum and morale, and also practically, because without successful clears you will be playing a lot of defense and will not have the ball in position to attack the opponent's goal and score.
An unsettled clear is when the the defense, often the goalie, gets the ball in the course of live play and the team has to get it up field.
A settled clear is when the ball changes possession to a team on their defensive half of the field after a stoppage in play, maybe picked up on the end line after a shot or the sideline after going out of bounds. The main difference with settled clears in lacrosse is that the clear can not begin until the referee blows the whistle to resume play.
Often the same clear can be used for the different scenarios, but it is still wise to practice each situation.
Clears took on special importance to me as I grew as a coach. In my first seasons coaching I allocated almost no practice time to clearing, which was not a thought-through decision but did have some basis -- I figured most of a lacrosse game would be spent in 6v6 situations and I wanted to win them by putting in plays on offense and by having strong defensive solutions. It made sense to spend practice time on offense and defense by doing drills and playing lots of 6v6 scrimmage.
Another practical reason for minimizing practice on clears was that we only had part of a half field to practice on. In the normal course of practice clears did not come up very often because -- well, the because is where the "coach-learning" came in. I would say the "because" was obviously due to the field space during live ball and that with half a field there was no way to run a practical, realistic transition clearing drill, but this would eventually prove to be first of all untrue and moreover sort of dangerous, defeatist thinking; a coach can almost always find a way to teach situations or run a drill for players to learn a skill on almost any size or shape of field.
Still, how could I grow up playing lacrosse and not put much practice emphasis on clearing when I became a coach, and how did I go full-circle to where clearing is now one of my favorite things to coach about the game?
The answers to both are actually within the question -- growing up playing lacrosse meant that during recess as a kid my friends and I would throw the lacrosse ball around on the playground and play keep away and generally we just got comfortable moving the ball around while running. This translated well to clearing because it was pretty easy to just throw the ball up the field to each other. For many seasons as a young player we had winning records but we didn't have a set clear, and we didn't really need one -- everyone knew we wanted the ball on the offensive side of the field and we could just throw it to each other to get it there.
Candidly, the mentality of clears in lacrosse really can be about this simple: just run the ball up the field or throw the ball to teammates to get the ball to the offensive half of the field. Since most of our opponents were at least as good at handling the ball in the open field as we were, our coaches told us to drop in and play defense and do whatever we could to avoid giving opponents a fast break, and our stick skills forced our opponents to do the same. Considering statistics, settled defense has a slight advantage over settled offense, so the coaches were using good strategy on the whole. Sure we would pressure the ball where possible, but the idea was to be willing to concede the clear and get the offense to bring the ball to our defense where we felt like we could usually win.
As a new coach I just figured all of the time in line drills and throwing and catching while running would easily convert into clearing, because isn't that all it really is?
At higher levels this often is how the game is played as well, at least as it appears on the outside. Opponents would gladly take the ball from the clearing team but stick skills among experienced players are usually so good that the ball can just zip up the field in a fun game of catch, so teams on defense really do have to focus on getting back to guard the goal on settled defense. Personnel at higher levels of lacrosse also tend to be more specialized, so teams usually are trying to get a few players on and off the field during the transition of a clear, which leads to more scrambling to get to the right spots before the ball gets there.
Of course, and very importantly, the clearing team has a one man advantage on their defensive half of the field because the goalie can come out of the crease to advance the ball up the field. Unless there is an uneven, man-down situation, the team with the ball really should be able to bring the ball on offense and is in a superb position to threaten for a fast break scoring chance.
Of course, that is, unless the team without the ball commits to an aggressive ride. Teams will often go through three and a half quarters without really challenging a clear, but toward the end of a game they might spring a trap with a well-rehearsed ride that puts intelligent, sudden pressure on the clearing team. In those moments, it is a safe bet that the riding team practiced the ride hard and wants that ball back even harder, and your players will need to work together to get the ball to the offense.
Lots of unpredictable things happen in lacrosse games when a riding team applies pressure. Players can make questionable choices with the ball when under duress, and passing accuracy tends to decrease when challenged, however a team with good clearing strategies can answer these high pressure rides with relative ease, which by the way is a demeaning blow to the morale of an opponent trying to get the ball back in the times when it really matters in the outcome of a game.
Some teams like to risk a high pressure ride throughout the game, and it was an opponent like this that made me realize how much I like coaching the clear. In terms of momentum and the emotional game, there is nothing more demoralizing than playing excellent defense, making a dramatic stand at a critical time, watching the goalie "stand on his head" or "play like he is a six foot tall, six foot wide wall", getting the ball, and then giving the ball up to the other team without playing any offense. I coached enough games (one, particularly) with long, exhausting defensive stands where we had the ball many times but threw it out of bounds, or threw it to the opponent, or just took too long with the ball, that made me realize -- a team can have the best offense on earth backed by the best defense in the world, but that team will not win a lacrosse game until they can clear the ball from defense to offense.
The message behind successful clearing is a remarkably pristine element of the game: your team must have the ball, and to win your team must have the ball in a position to score.
Repairs to failed clears are also wonderfully pure lacrosse tenets: fundamentals rule. If a team improves at catching and throwing while running and under duress they will get better at clearing, which taps right into the roots of lacrosse, where tribes were playing in fields miles long and there was quite a lot of transition and clearing.
Combining the fundamentals skills with some general tactical and strategic guidelines leads to great success in clearing and the ability to take the game to the opponent.
Fundamentals Of The Clear
General Team Objectives For The Clear:
- Look for the Fast Break. Players should break out looking to receive a pass immediately once their team gets the ball for the clear. If the goalie has the ball after a save, the first look should be to the player who was guarding the shooter.
- Spread out and clear up the sides. Since the ball is on the defensive half of the field, any ball-handling mishap in the center of the field could give the opponent possession directly in front of the goal. Instead of going to the center, advance the ball up the sides so that if something does go wrong the clearing team has time to run back to position before the opponent gets a scoring chance.
- Be conscious of time. Your team has twenty seconds to advance the ball to the half line and then ten more seconds to bring the ball into the restraining box of the offense area; taking longer will result in a turnover and a failed clear, but also realize this is plenty of time to stay steady and organized.
- Find the 2v1. An advantage of having the ball on the defensive half is that, by including the goalie, the clearing team has a 7v6 advantage. This is 13 players running around, which can become confusing, but the focus can be distilled down to the 3 players in the immediate action -- 2 on the clearing team and 1 trying to ride.
- Communicate For Victory. If you are the open man, let the ball carrier know! Shout his name and "Here's Your Help!!"
- Work Together. The ball moves faster being passed in the air than by anyone running it.
- Make Easy Passes. It is better to possess the ball and make high percentage passes than to take big risks trying to advance the ball.
- Be willing to run back or pass back. Being careful not to pass in a way that might accidently go into your own goal, it is better to turn away from pressure and throw to an open teammate behind you to give your team a chance to redirect and try the clear a different way than to force the ball into pressure. Dodging up the field is fun and sensational but often leads to disorganization and turnovers. In some cases clearing players over-focus on dodging and run out of bounds with the ball, which of course is just like handing the ball to the other team.
- Include the Attackmen. Not confined to just waiting for the ball, the 3 attackmen can actively participate to bring the ball on offense and should be included in any clearing plays.
Individual Fundamentals For The Clear:
- Use Solid Fundamentals. Catching and throwing with the stick in the ready position makes the difficult moments look easy and results in greater success.
- Be mindful of spacing. Most clearing plays build this in but in chaotic clears remember to avoid bunching up.
- Keep Moving. A player standing still is easy to guard. Some clearing strategies require certain players, usually defensemen, to be standing in specific places on the field, but players need to be running to get open for a pass.
- Keep your eyes on the ball. Even when breaking out into position for the clear you should turn your head and be aware of where the ball is -- the goalie or another teammate may be trying to throw you the ball!
- Know the team talk. Call for the ball when you are open and be the "eyes in the back of the head" for teammates, for example, if a riding player is sneaking up on the ball carrier or if a different teammate is open you can help by communicating with the right calls. It is also smart to "echo" the play call and remind teammates to run the clear, and which clear it is if your team runs more than one. "Middie back" is also a useful call when a defenseman or attackman is crossing the half field line to be sure the team stays onsides.
- "Draw And Dump" when carrying the ball. Once a clearing player identifies a 2v1 he should run at the riding player to draw him in to play defense. The rider might not fall for the trap, but if he does he will leave the player he was guarding open and the clearing team can pass the ball over his head to advance the ball.
- Clearing Goalies: You are the 7th man, the advantage, and the quarterback of the clear. Your first look for a clearing pass should instinctively be right back at where the shot came from -- that player that shot on goal on the opposing team is usually the least ready to play defense and you can often immediately start a fast break. If that does not develop remember you have 4 good seconds before you have to get the ball out of the crease, which you can do by passing or by running it out. The riders can not go in the crease, so if you are under pressure you can use the crease for a buffer, either running out the back or up the field. Just remember that once you leave the crease you can not go back in while in possession of the ball; if you do the referee will award the ball to the other team. When you leave the crease, you may be the open man, and you might be running up the field with the ball. That is the time to find and force the 2v1 draw and dump. You may run far enough up the field to cross to offense, so be aware that your team needs to stay onsides, but you can cross. If the opponent still isn't guarding you at this point, you might be able to still set up an unsettled fast break from midfield, just continue with the draw and dump. You might, rarely, get a shot on goal, just be aware of your importance and that you should really focus on dishing the ball to a teammate so you can get back to the goal.
- Defensemen: A defenseman's role in a clear is usually to go to specific places to provide support, because if the goalie knows where to look for you he does not have to spend much time trying to find you. Defensemen are maybe not the first look but they are often the first outlet because one of them is typically open in the early stages of a clear. This is where ball-handling and stickwork show for the longpoles who perhaps spend more focus on stopping the ball. Defensemen also are frequently called upon to use long passes in a clear, often under some pressure, so time spent in practice on stickwork and long passes can prove very useful in games. Remember, too, that defenseman can run with the ball and cross to offense; as long as the team is onsides that long pole can also be a threat to score.
- Midfielders: Often the workhorses of a clear, midfielders should show hustle and hard work within the framework of the team's clearing strategy. Transition is where doing the hard work of running hard makes the game seem easier.
- Attackmen: Attackmen must balance being in position to be a threat to score on a fast break or unsettled transition with being in position to help the team advance the ball to offense. Attackmen with little experience often run away from the ball carrier when they should really be running toward them to help as an outlet for a pass, so stay topside when helping advance the ball. Additionally, many defensemen are reluctant to "over-guard" attackmen during a clear for fear of allowing a fast break, so it is crucial for the 3 attackmen to involve themselves by running suddenly and hard to get open. If your defender somehow gets drawn upfield in a draw and dump, then run and call for the ball, you just got a numbers advantage to attack the goal!
Guidelines For Teaching The Clear
- The keys to emphasize when teaching clearing are to stay spread out, to always draw a man when carrying the ball, and then to dump it off.
- Remember that when clearing you typically will have an extra player (the goalie).
- Use a stopwatch or timer to drill the players into being aware of the time it takes for them to clear.