This is an excerpt from Coaching Canadian Football by Football Canada.
Every football coach knows that tackling is one of the most important fundamental skills in the sport, yet few coaches know how to properly teach tackling. In this section, I cover some of the main reasons teams struggle with tackling, along with my thoughts on each issue.
Coaches Assume Players Already Know How to Tackle
In minor or high school football, many players show up to tryouts who have never played the game before. Whether you're coaching minor or professional football, tackling needs to be consistently coached and drilled in practice with proper progressions to ensure safe and sound technique. This will help build confidence in athletes, and it will develop muscle memory that will reduce the chances of flawed (and potentially dangerous) technique during competition.
Too many coaches introduce tackling with the phrase “Let's see who wants to hit!” They follow this up with a full-speed tackling drill. It's dangerous and counterproductive to have athletes participate in live-contact drills before they are ready. Even if players already know how to tackle properly, technique should be reviewed by starting with the preliminary progressions. Starting right from the basics can help correct any bad habits players may have developed, and it also helps players become more confident in their ability to tackle.
Coaches Fail to Recognize Tackling Proficiency
Coaches, fans, and the media often glorify a big hit even when the technique is flawed and potentially dangerous (e.g., lowered head, arm tucked into tackler's body). This misguided praise perpetuates unsafe and inconsistent tackling. Hard hits can be made with safe and sound technique. Recently the rules have expanded to further protect players from helmet-initiated contact. Leagues everywhere have made this a point of emphasis. It's a step in the right direction, but coaches, fans, and the media need to follow suit by discouraging these dangerous types of hits. Often, the most challenging and technical tackles made in a game don't involve the huge collisions that get fans out of their seats. It is our job as coaches to recognize when our players make fundamentally sound tackles and celebrate them.
Coaches Lack the Knowledge and Experience to Effectively Coach and Drill Tackling
We often hear coaching clichés like “Tackling is 80 percent desire and 20 percent technique.” Yes, desire counts, but it is the coach's responsibility to help develop this desire. When a player is confident in his technique and assignments, he is more likely to play aggressively. A coach may label a player as “not tough enough” or “doesn't like contact” when in reality the coach hasn't taught the athlete how to tackle properly. Providing detailed coaching with proper progressions will instill confidence and ultimately the desire to make tackles.
A few years ago, I saw University of Miami offensive line coach Art Kehoe speak about offensive line fundamentals. I was blown away by the incredible precision that Coach Kehoe brought to teaching each type of block. Coach Kehoe dissected every step down to a fraction of an inch; he talked about weight distribution, where the offensive lineman's eyes should be focused, the spacing of the fingers, and more. The level of detail he provided was mind-blowing! In my opinion, all great position coaches teach the fundamentals in this manner, but for some reason defensive coaches tend to be vague and lacking in detail when teaching tackling. A second problem is that very few defensive coaches have the ability to identify, isolate, and correct mistakes in tackling. These two problems are interrelated; teaching the skill of tackling in greater detail and with appropriate progressions will allow coaches to more effectively identify and communicate breakdowns in technique. It allows coaches to correct mistakes by referencing drills and using buzzwords (handy terms) that emerge during drill work. For example, a coach can say, “Squeeze your clamp just like we do in our goalpost tackle drill.”
Coaches Emphasize Schemes Instead of Tackling Fundamentals
It doesn't matter if you have the perfect schemes installed; if your players can't tackle, you won't win football games. I think that, now and then, just about every coach gets too caught up in schemes or blames his schemes for a poor performance. Usually, big plays are given up by a defense when tackles are missed, not because somebody thinks the 4-3 defense sucks. Anybody can draw up a defensive playbook or find one on the Internet, but few people can teach players how to execute the skills necessary to succeed in that defense. There are plenty of X-and-O coaches out there, but the great coaches are the ones who know how to coach the fundamentals and understand how fundamentals relate to schemes. Tackling is the most important fundamental skill in any defensive scheme. To be a great tackling team, you need to practice the fundamentals of tackling almost every day. Make sure that tackling gets the required attention in your practice plans.
Athletes Lack Speed or Strength to Be Proficient Tacklers
In Canada, the calibre of play at the high school level through to university has improved by leaps and bounds over the past 15 years. We are at the point now at which athletes need to participate in year-round strength and speed programs in order to compete at the highest levels. The bigger, stronger, and (most importantly) faster athletes have greater potential to succeed on the football field. An effective off-season strength and conditioning program not only increases players' potential to become better tacklers, it also protects players from injuries. I'm convinced that when I suffered my career-ending neck injury, my large muscular neck is what saved me from paralysis. After my spinal-fusion surgery, I recall the surgeon telling me that I had the largest sternocleidomastoid (a neck muscle) he had ever seen. He told me that the musculature in my neck acted as a natural brace and that it probably saved me from suffering a more severe injury. Be sure to include neck-strengthening exercises in your strength and conditioning program.
Learn more about Coaching Canadian Football.