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The Art Of The Lacrosse Face Off – Is It The Most Important Position In Lacrosse?

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Greg Gurenlian - Arguably Best Lacrosse Face Off Of All time

The face off in lacrosse has evolved through the ages in terms of line up, speed of whistle, and distance of the head from the ball as two face off players line up to with the back side of the heads on either sides of the ball in a crouched position as they await a whistle to battle for possession of the ball.  Possession of the ball is very important in lacrosse, as Division I college teams score 41% of the time per possession, making the face off position extremely important; often the deciding factor in whether a team wins or loses.

Many face off guys are very good all around lacrosse players but often as they advance in the levels of lacrosse, they increasingly stand out as winning face offs being their best contribution to the team.  Duke head coach John Danowski once famously said [referring to the face off specialist] that in the game of lacrosse, “the worst lacrosse player on the field often determines the outcome of games.”  Hence the now common position known as the FOGO, an acronym for Face Off, Get Off.

What I have learned about face off dominance in my years of playing and as a coach is that even the best lacrosse players just simply cannot be trained to be great face off guys.  It really is a skill you either have to do not, nonetheless, if a player shows aptitude in face off, it is important to nurture that player and get him the best training he can attain to hone the skill.

Case in point, my strongest all around player in the 10U boys travel division I coached this past season is a boy named Jackson.  There is nothing this boy cannot do, often  netting us 9 points per game while playing incredible defense, with seemingly endless stamina as a midfielder.  Yet, as great as an athlete as Jackson is (perhaps the best I have seen in a player at this age), Jackson was not very strong as face off.

We had the good fortune to bring in Dylan Lowdermilk, 2 time All-American face off at FSU (4 year all district face off middie from one of our local high school teams and now graduated, face off coach for FSU) to work with our travel teams.  I asked Dylan during practice to take groups of 4 of my team during practice, work through face off technique, and determine who my best face off players were.

Interestingly, a boy named Tommy, the youngest boy on the team who had just started playing lacrosse this year but showed enough raw athletic ability that I believed he could be developed into a travel team lacrosse player, proved to be our top face off prospect. By our final tournament of the summer season, Tommy became our go to face off player and enjoyed incredible success despite being young player so new to the game.

So what it is about certain players that just have that gift for face off?  Bringing up Tommy is a perfect segue into the sport science of face off, since ESPN did an analysis on arguably the best face off specialist in college, Team USA, and professional lacrosse history: Greg Gurenlian.  Tommy’s parents enrolled him in a face off academy clinic with none other than Greg Gurenlian this summer.

Here is what ESPN sport science analysis discovered about Gurenlian that made him so dominant at face off.:

  • Reaction Time – Average reaction to the whistle is 150 milliseconds.  Gurenlian’s is 130 milliseconds, translating into a 13% advantage in reaction time than the average human.
  • Clamp – During his clamp, Gurenlian rotates his head by swinging his bottom left hand on the shaft at 770 degrees per second, beating his average opponent to the clamp by an average of 0.02 seconds (the same amount of time it takes a humming bird to flaps its wings).
  • Defensive Exit – Once securing the ball, Gurenlian rips the stick out at 14. miles per hour, then sweeping the ball with his head at 3 G’s of acceleration…this adds up to Gurenlian escaping the face off space in less than 0.43 seconds!

All told, Gurenlian gains full possession of the ball in 0.23 seconds, 7% faster than an NHL hockey face off.

Greg Gurenlian’s stats courtesy of ESPN Sport’s Science tell us a few things about what makes a great face off specialist:

1.) Reaction time.

2.) Fast, strong hands.

3.) Strong upper and lower body acceleration.

To be sure, many of these skills can be honed and improved but it seems a lot of being a great face off lacrosse player is God given.  It is incumbent upon us coaches to be able to recognize these face off beasts early and point them in the direction of the best face off instruction we can offer them.

Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and well regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms.  In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport.  He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health  blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.