Tiger football camp will feature new way to tackle: Rugby style

At next week’s annual Tiger Power Football Camp, the sport’s ongoing attempts to curtail head injuries and become safer will be on display.

Those attending the camp — open to rising third through eighth graders (July 17-21, 9 to 1 each day) at the Tiger Hollow II field on the Ridgefield High School campus — will perform football-specific drills and exercises without wearing helmets and pads. That includes the daily 30-minute tackling portion of the camp.

Lead instructor Pete McLean (an assistant coach for the RHS football team) and his coaches and counselors (current and former RHS players) will guide the campers through a rugby-style form of tackling that has been gaining popularity throughout all levels, from the pros down to the peewees.

“The main idea is that the head comes out of the tackle,” said McLean, who also coaches the Ridgefield High rugby club team. “You track (the ball carrier’s) the hip with your eyes and tackle with your shoulder.”

Adapted from rugby tackles, the technique spread through a 2014 instructional video released by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and former assistant Rocky Seto. The video, which has since been updated, covers six types of tackles that are based on rugby.

Defenses at several major college programs, including Ohio State, Washington and Nebraska, now teach the technique, as do Ridgefield and a number of high school teams across the country.

“It’s filtered down from the pros to college to high school and into the youth levels,” said McLean. “So far the evidence is pretty solid that it is a safer way to tackle.”

With concussions and other football-related head injuries linked to degenerative brain damage such as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a movement to improve player safety has been underway this decade. A few years ago, USA Football (an organization that trains youth coaches) introduced a revised tackling technique known as Heads-Up Football, in which contact is made by rising into the ball carrier with chests and shoulders, keeping heads back.

But one study commissioned by USA Football found that youth teams offering the Heads-Up training had essentially the same concussion rate as teams that did not. And naysayers believe that Heads-Up tackling is unrealistic because it is seldom done in games and also keeps a tackler's head dangerously close to his opponent.

Those doubts have helped lead to the rise in rugby-style tackling, which emulates tackles performed for years by rugby players, who don’t wear helmets.

“It does seem to be part of the progression towards player safety,” said McLean. “In the past, players were taught to tackle with their helmet in the opponent’s chest. Head across the bow … that was the old adage. But that method is no longer considered safe, so the emphasis has been on finding better ways to tackle.

“With rugby-style tackling, you don’t need equipment to learn the technique,” added McLean. “It can be taught in a safe environment for the head that involves no force, no velocity.”

Although the Ridgefield Youth Football program has not made rugby-style tackling mandatory, McLean said that some coaches began implementing training techniques last season.

“They invested in some equipment, such as tackle rings, which teach kids how to make a rugby-style tackle properly,” said McLean, who is in his first year as a board member for Ridgefield Youth Football. “The goal is to make this a safer game that parents are willing to let their kids play.”

Notes: For more information on the camp, visit tigerpowerfootball.com.