Springfield, VA — The newest discipline of lacrosse is growing quickly — and nowhere was that more evident than at the Athletes Unlimited exhibition game this weekend.
AU, a network of women’s professional leagues that includes lacrosse, held a sixes exhibition game at the St. James athletic complex in front of a passionate crowd yelling encouragement and appreciation for the sport on display. With a smaller field and 30-second shot-clock, the game was action-packed; Ally Kennedy led the field in goals to help Team Moreno take home the 15-10 victory against Team Huff.
While the game could only have one winning team, the enthusiastic crowd made it clear that the sixes discipline was a success as well.
Sixes was introduced to help grow lacrosse and fit within the Olympic framework through a fast-paced, accessible and smaller-sided discipline. Blending popular aspects of both the field and box games, the discipline has already made headway across the globe and made its debut at The World Games in July.
Now, U.S. professional leagues are also embracing the format. Along with AU’s exhibition this weekend, the Premier Lacrosse League will host a new sixes competition with the top four teams from its 2022 season facing off in February in the 2023 Championship Series.
“For us, it makes perfect sense,” said Abi Jackson, director of sport for lacrosse at AU. The professional league utilizes a 10 vs. 10 gameplay format with a 60-second shot clock, so with the off-season limiting player availability, sixes felt like a natural evolution for the exhibition game.”
On a practical level, she explained, the discipline makes the sport easier for athletes of any level to play: there’s less space and fewer players required.
“When you think about basketball – why so many people play it is because you just need a ball and a hoop. I think a full-field lacrosse game isn’t something you can just slap together and play. But if you’re playing sixes… you [more easily] get both that fun element and the game element,” said Jackson.
With World Lacrosse’s global membership spanning 79 countries, these differences are likely to help nations around the world pick up the sport more easily and increase parity. In fact, Japan’s men’s team was able to earn its first international medal at The World Games with the sixes debut.
“As a U.S. player, you want to always cheer for your country,” said Kristen Carr, a defender on Team Moreno and two-time gold medalist for team USA in the World Lacrosse Women’s Championship. “But from a global standpoint, having a different country earn that medal creates a little more parity and competition. Having Japan in the men’s game earn third place is incredible.”
The parity of sixes, Carr says, injects energy and excitement into the discipline and provides a vehicle to grow the sport. Jackson agrees.
“It’s a more manageable version of the sport – you don’t need a specific playing surface or space to play. You can play it on a basketball court or a patch of grass. I think it’ll help us grow internationally – similar to futsal,” said Jackson. “We are going to use all the elements we use in a full-field game, but it’s going to be faster and everyone will stay involved the whole time.”
Rather than having to start with teaching beginning players about defensive or offensive zones, she says, kids can just go out to run around and have fun.
“Sixes is a little less intimidating. When you start out, it’s a little more of a natural way to play sports, I think.”
But the new discipline has benefits beyond the practical, for both new and established players: it’s fun.
“It was fun – it was very fast and very exciting,” said Kayla Wood, who traditionally plays as a defender during the AU Lacrosse season. “It was really fun to be on both sides of the ball.”
“I love it. I think it’s fun, it’s fast, it’s creative and there’s a lot of strategy involved,” agreed Sammy Jo Tracy, an attacker who represented Israel’s national team during sixes’ debut at The World Games. “I just love to play it and wish we could play it more.”
“For me, I love the stick tricks. Being able to show off my creativity and work with the best in the world is what I dream of doing, so this is a dream come true.”
Tracy’s nifty stick skills were on display during the match, much to the delight of the crowd. At practice, she set the goal of only attempting trick shots during the game, and stuck to it.
“I tried my best and tried to play smart,” she laughed. “But also creating highlight goals is really important to get us out there, so we can keep showcasing how cool our sport is.”
Players and coaches alike spoke about the speed, agility and creativity required for sixes.
“In sixes, you have the ball and the action is immediate,” said Jackson. “You take people who are super athletic and have phenomenal stick skills; you have an opportunity to do things you just don’t see frequently on a full field.”
The discipline favors two-way players, who can transition between offense and defense and play the full field. With fewer set pieces employed, athletes need to react as plays flow and unfold.
Carr, who coaches and ran two clinics at the athletic center prior to the exhibition game, noted that the tighter space forces players to rapidly improve their holistic skills across disciplines.
“You need a good stick and strong defense, that forces you to develop as a whole player. So I think sixes and the field game are just going to help each other … The more we can introduce sixes, the better the players are going to get from it.”
While the athletes and coaches view sixes as an important evolution for the growth of the sport and players throughout the world, they also have a second goal in mind for the discipline: inclusion at the Olympic Games.
“It would be a dream,” said Carr. “You grow up watching all these other team sports in the Olympics – you get to see them walk during opening ceremonies and you get to watch them compete for their country at the highest stage. To have a chance to get to that level would be very impactful for the lacrosse community across the world, and we believe that we’re on the way. We’ve got some more work to do, but I think we are right there.”
“I mean, my mom is on a diet and exercise plan – she’s 78 – so that she’s alive when it happens. She’s literally been saying, ‘I’m trying to stay healthy and alive so I can come to the Olympics because if lacrosse is in LA, we have to go,’” laughed Jackson. “And she’s right. It’s the pinnacle, right? It’s the pinnacle.”