Full disclaimer: I have no idea why this pass rule is called hippo. Ever since I was a little kid anytime in practice or in games that our coach wanted us to pass the ball within a set period of time it was called hippo. I don’t think about the name that much, I just go with it.

U9 games are an experience for players, coaches, officials, parents, and other fans. Usually the U9 game is played on a field with smaller dimensions and there are a lot of age-specific rules guiding the game for the younger players. Couple the smaller area and age-specific rules with the fact that most U9 players take a few seconds to figure out what is going on each possession and the U9 game generally becomes an exercise in herding cats.

This isn’t a knock on U9 players. Far from it. I know those players are trying very hard to figure out a complex and fast game while wearing unfamiliar equipment and manipulating a lacrosse stick. Oh, and they’re learning all this while playing an opponent. Imagine how difficult it would be to learn how to ride a bike as a kid if you were being chased by opposing bike riders. It’s tough stuff, and I don’t like making the game any harder for these young players to figure out. That is why AYL tested out the U9-hippo rule this past fall.

In past seasons AYL followed many other programs in Georgia and around in the country in requiring two attempted passes in a team’s offensive half of the field before a shot in the U9 game. This rule makes a lot of sense at this age level as many times one player can run the length of the field and score one-on-one against the goalkeeper. The two pass attempt rule was adopted by AYL to encourage U9 players to look for the extra pass, and while it did teach the young players to look for another pass it had some unintended consequences:

  1. Pass it to you and pass it back to me – This was probably the most common issue. Two players well away from the goal and the opposing defenders would pass the ball to each other to reach the two required passes. Then the player with the ball would go one-on-one. The other players on the team didn’t do much and generally stood around, not getting spread or learning how to move off ball.
  2. I’ve got two passes, no more needed – Another odd consequence was that after two passes were achieved some players would never, ever pass the ball. They’d run through traffic, drop the ball, and a giant scrum would result. The required two passes actively discouraged additional passes after the second pass was attempted.
  3. How many passes? – The two pass rule put a lot of pressure on new adult and youth officials who generally officiate U9 games across the country to keep track of each pass attempt and put two fingers in the air to notify the team with the ball that they could go to the goal for a shot. Many of these officials were rightly focused on safety and occasionally forgot to count or signal the number of attempted passes. This led to frustrated coaches who didn’t know when their team had the green light to go to the goal.
  4. Passes were poorly chosen – Many times after the first pass a player would get defended well and, knowing a second pass was needed for a goal, chose to make an ill-advised pass in traffic that usually got knocked down and another big scrum would develop. The drive to attempt a second pass overrode the player’s natural instinct of holding the ball, running to space, and then looking for a better pass that was further away from the defenders.

Coach Lou and I saw this over two seasons and knew there had to be a better way to still encourage U9 players to pass the ball, but learn how to pass it more effectively and at the most opportune times. So we resurrected hippo.

Hippo is a practice drill where the offensive player must move the ball within three seconds or the whistle is blown and the ball is turned over to the defense. This encourages the offense to stay spread, cut off ball to get open, and make the player with possession understand the importance of moving the ball. As Coach Lou says to our older players, we know you can cradle so try passing the ball.

Now the U9 players are still learning to cradle and get comfortable with having possession of the ball during a game so we lengthened the time to pass the ball to five seconds early in this spring season. As the players get more comfortable on the field we’ll knock it down to four seconds, and if they’re really getting the hang of it we’ll knock it down to three seconds.

With the hippo rule in place there is no attempted pass requirement before shooting, but if a player does not attempt a pass within five seconds of gaining possession then the official will blow his whistle, signal Failure to Advance, and award possession to the opposing team at the spot the play was whistled dead. We used the hippo rule this fall and it cleared up the unintended consequences of the two pass attempts rule.

What I found even more impressive was that by the end of the fall U9 season players were getting the ball out of their sticks within two seconds, and at least moving the ball to an open area of the field if they were under pressure and couldn’t get a clean pass off. The game spread out, scrums (very prevalent at the U9 level) were still present but decreased in frequency, and the players showcased a much improved sense of how to move the ball on offense.

AYL started this past Sunday with a 5-second Hippo count and will likely keep it for this coming Sunday. Once the players have gotten over most of their pre-season jitters, we’ll move the Hippo count down to 4-seconds for most of the season. I still don’t know why it’s called Hippo, but I do know it works very well as long as it’s applied properly.


About Lou Corsetti

Gordon is a born lacrosse official who played for ten years before realizing he'd much rather ref the game than play it. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia and officiates youth, high school, and collegiate men's lacrosse games all over the southeast. His passion is educating and training officials, coaches, players, parents and all other fans on the rules of lacrosse, it's history, and how best to develop lacrosse in new areas.

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