By Darren Lum
Published Sept. 27 2016
High school football coaches across the country are tackling new ways to make the game safer.
The Red Hawks football team’s coaching staff this past pre-season have been implementing Football Canada’s Safe Contact programand believe it’s a necessary move to protect players.
The senior coaches Raavo Laidla and Dan Marsden and the junior coaches Derek Little and Dave Lloyd have all completed the required one-day six hour lecture with PowerPoint that included oral discussion for participant questions to learn about Safe Contact. It included a change to instruct players to tackle instead of hit.
Little welcomes the changes and expects a reduction in big hits and hopefully the head injuries.
“It’s going to take it from the old days of the heavy hitting. The real impacts to now they talk about pursuit angles. They turned it more into a game of chess so to speak. We’re not going to go out and try to kill the guy. We have to contain him and force him to either run out of bounds or run to one of us” he said. “The one thing we haven’t even got to yet is teaching when you’re tackling in the open field it is not about chasing the guy any more. It’s not setting him up for the big bang. It’s about taking these three different pursuit angles depending on where you are in relation to that player and simply forcing him nowhere to go.”
Football Canada wants players to tackle an opponent so the head is behind rather than in front of an opponent. They used rugby as an example where tackling an opponent on an angle employs the wrapping and twisting technique. In frontal encounter a tackling player must approach the ball carrier from a lower centre of gravity keep his head up eyes to the sky then engage by leading with his chest against the opponent’s chest thrust up all while wrapping the opponent with his bent arms (90 degrees) and lift up. The program also provides blocking techniques to emphasize position and footwork.
The program instructors for Safe Contact showed the coaches clips and a video on the tackling being taught and used by Seattle Seahawks football players which isn’t exactly what Football Canada has instructed coaches to teach but is an example of where the game is moving to rather than leading with the head as used predominantly in the past.
All of the coaches took home a comprehensive 53 page coach reference manual that outlines drills to teach the new tackling and blocking techniques. There are images and diagrams outlining angles and footwork required of players. They were also encouraged to watch the feature movie starring Will Smith called Concussion. Based on a true story the movie is about a Nigerian doctor who discovers CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in football players which leads to a battle to be able to expose the link.
Little the junior football coach who has 22 years of experience appreciates the end goal of this initiative which is to reduce injuries namely head injuries.
“These types of efforts have to be placed for the safety of our kids and for adults and everybody else playing these sports” he said.
He adds this change to the game will be advantageous to good athletes and in particular to the smaller and quicker athletes that don’t need to fear the big hit with a larger player leading with his head.
When it comes to mismatches between larger and smaller and weaker players the approach is to slow down and wait for support. He describes it as “gang tackling.”
This approach raises concern for him.
“This is where my antennas go up a little bit because that style of tackling many times results in more injuries because you have five bodies instead of two bodies and you’ve got fingers being broken and ankles heads contacting hands and stuff … or you get two guys coming in to do it at the same time and it’s still head-to-head. When you’re not prepared for head-to-head is when it tends to be bad. We’ve seen that in football.”
From the NFL he said there has been occasions this past season when players have been carried off the field because of a collision between teammates.
When it comes to tackling Little adds wrapping up your opponent and twisting isn’t new but putting the head or face mask anywhere near the point of contact is not.
“The whole concept of wrapping up in a tackle has never changed. You need to get your arms around a person. It’s not a matter of just coming in like a bullet and knocking someone down. We’ve never taught making contact with the head as a spear but we have many times made a reference to contacting with your head is up and your face mask is engaged in that contact and that is no longer accepted” he said.
The “hitting with the heart” technique being pushed now leaves players vulnerable to injuries to the lower extremities such as lower back and legs. Players are forced into a high centre of gravity and left more exposed.
He acknowledges this is an unknown without being able to implement it yet. He did raise this concern at the workshop which was met with understanding of the possibility. Time will tell. He hopes Football Canada will monitor this and investigate.
An advantage of this new technique Little said is no equipment is needed to work on the form and footwork for hitting and blocking.
“They can learn without having a helmet on” he said. “Again that impact thing … it’s a good way to teach them to have their head of the way. Nobody wants to clash heads” he said. “Another thing it has done it’s maybe taken a little bit of the fear for the smaller players out of the game.”
He adds there is less chance of a player running another over.
“It’s not allowed” he said.
What this will lead to is unknown.
Little was concerned about more workshops which may require a full weekend and how players may be limited to particular number of contact games played by a child in a calendar year. Players will have their activity recorded by being entered into a database related to all contact games. This could not only apply to football but all sports considered contact sports such as ice hockey or even field hockey which coaches there are only required a short online instruction.
“It’s kind of scary to be honest” he said.
Laidla a community volunteer attended the day long workshop held by Football Canada in spring.
Much of the new techniques is a move towards having players keep their head away from contact which includes running backs.
“When a running back is now going through the line [of scrimmage] he cannot put his head down and pile drive like they used to do in the old days” he said. “If they do that … they will get called [for a penalty.]”
So far his team has been making the transition well he said.
“They’re adapting to it and they’re consciously trying to do it the way that we’re asking them to do it but I said ‘in any given situation you need to make the tackle and if you have to do it the old way then you’re going to do it the old way.’ The thing is we do not want head-to-head contact. In other words I do not want anybody tackling high where their helmet hits the opponents’ helmet because that will be called right away whether it’s offence of defence” he said.
Little acknowledges change is difficult but readily admits it is time to make the sport safer.
“Change is inevitable. It was inevitable in hockey which is our national sport and people complain there is less fighting but you know what? Now you have people enjoying the game just from a different perspective” he said.
He pointed to the World Cup of hockey (before it started) and couldn’t imagine any fighting.
“Again it’s time for some change. Maybe it’s been past time. Thankfully somebody is putting some efforts into helping with that change. Unfortunately we’re going to look at it from the coaching perspective many times and go ‘Holy man. You want us to go how far and do this and do that.’ Like let’s change one thing and let’s try it and if we change the concept of that thunderous hit then maybe that’s the best way to start and let’s see where that goes” he said.
However changing the mindset is a challenge for players and particularly coaches who still receive a visceral satisfaction from seeing their player deliver a big hit.
“Inside from deep you go ‘yeah.’ You know. That’s what it’s been. That’s the sport. That’s how we played it. The hard part is how are you going to deal with that kid [that delivered the hit]? It’s hard to take away the intensity and stuff so they’re going to receive this 15 yard penalty. It could cost you this. It could cost you that. From a coach you got to be open minded about this and say ‘OK really great hit but you got to get this thing out of the impact zone” he said pointing to his head. “Shoulder head to the side but you can’t have this thing stuck in someone’s chest anymore and someone’s grill” he said.