Tackling is a skill.
Bringing down an unwilling opponent who’s often moving at very high speeds takes technique and aggressive intent. Yet to prepare for the act of tackling say, a 200-pound running back, we hit dummies that can’t put up a fight and weigh virtually nothing.
“The average bag is incredibly light, incredibly soft, incredibly squishy,” says Andy Ryland, Senior Manager of Education & Training at USA Football. “We don’t get much stimulus or feedback post-contact. And when we train player-to-player, we get great post-contact stimulus because your teammate or your opponent is physically trying to break away from you or break the tackle.
“But with our contact guidelines or contact rules, whatever level of football you play, coaches (are) being really smart about limiting the practice field contact so we can keep our best guys healthy for game day. So how can we mimic some post-contact forces in a non player-to-player scenario?”
That very question was behind the genesis of the Band Tackle Drill, which was invented by multi-sport tackling expert Richie Gray. It’s a staple of USA Football’s Advanced Tackling System, and one of those drills that’s so simple yet so effective, you’ll be gobsmacked you hadn’t thought of it yourself.
Here’s how it works. You can use a variety of different tackling bags for this, but there’s one caveat—it must have a sturdy handle for this drill to work correctly. Next, find a heavy elastic band (think the type you’d use to add additional resistance to a Barbell Bench Press or Squat in the weight room) and loop one end though the handle. You want the band to be at least a few feet long, and the tension should be appropriate for the age/experience level of the athletes you’re training. If the band’s too light/skinny, it won’t provide the desired stimulus and is also likely to break.
Once you’ve got your equipment all set up, you can proceed to any number of tackling drills—but now, that bag is going to have a lot more life in it post-contact thanks to a partner or coach pulling it by the band.
When a bag can break a tackle, drills that utilize them are going to require and reinforce better tackling habits from players.
“(There’s) the fear that bag might just step out of your arms the same way a runner might step out of a tackle,” Ryland says.
“Pulling on that band with 150 pounds of tension—now, if you don’t stay clamped to the bag, I will quite easily pull it right out of your arms. And everyone will see that our clamp wasn’t good enough to complete a tackle in a game situation…It makes them compete against something. I think there’s no easier way to teach an athlete than through exposure and self-discovery. So I could tell you how important it is to clamp the bag and wrap and finish, or I could create a drill where the context of the drill says if you don’t clamp, you’re actually going to be unsuccessful in the drill. It’s amazing how fast that will clean up some technique.”
There are several near-immediate adjustments this alteration can naturally elicit from the tackler.
For one, they’re more likely to clamp the bag with an iron grip and maintain that vise-like squeeze through the conclusion of the tackle. “Stress the clamp, strengthen the clamp. This is a way to ingrain that,” says Ryland.
Next, it trains them to finish tackles by eliminating any daylight between themselves and the bag. Many broken tackles are due to the defensive player trying to land a “knock-down” blow instead of accelerating through contact and maintaining a dominant position as they drive the opponent to the deck.
“You’ll see guys just smashing bags and the bags go flying. And it looks good, and it looks physical, but in all actuality, it’s probably pretty poor technique,” Ryland says. “We want to dominate that bag to the deck, we don’t want to just knock it down…It’s just the best way for us to be able to replicate that and put a strong emphasis on the clamp and finishing a play until it’s ended.”
Finally, it helps players learn to drive their cleats into the ground through the conclusion of the tackle.
“We can’t generate leg drive unless our cleats are in the ground, and players tend to want to give up their cleats pretty early. Then they end up making what we would call a drag finish rather than a drive finish, and we’re always looking for a drive finish on the tackle. We’re going to tell our athletes they want to drive their feet all the way through the completion of the tackle,” says Ryland. “Even when you’re on the ground, I still want your toes curled up and your cleats in the ground. Don’t give them up just because that bags on the ground.”
Not only is the drill an instant way to make tackling drills more realistic and increase their carryover to the field, but it also greatly ups the fun factor.
For more drills from both of USA Football’s Tackling Systems, head here.
Photo Credit: hlehnerer/iStock