4 limited-contact drills to drive competition, teach defensive skills

By Mike Kuchar | Posted 4/12/2018

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll's book "Win Forever" was where I first realized the importance of the development and cultivation of competition in practice.

The truth is, most players – particularly young ones – develop a negative perception of practice. It becomes monotonous drudgery, a means to an end, to get to what really counts in their minds: the actual game.

Talk to any coach, and they'll say success lies in preparation, that practice paves the way for competition. This is why many coaches find ways to turn drills into acts of competition, pitting one player against another.

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The reasons are simple: It drives effort, and it makes drill work fun.

Throughout the years, I’ve modified defensive drills to make them enjoyable for my players, while teaching them how to compete. Here are four low-contact drills you can incorporate to get that competitive edge brewing.

Circle the flag tackle drill

Circle flag drill

Purpose: This is a one-on-one, open-field tackle drill first introduced to me by William Mitchell, the head coach at Lewisville High School in South Carolina. It teaches players how to come to balance and prepare to make an open field tackle – both steps within USA Football’s Heads Up Football program.

Coaching points: Get two football flags (without the belt) and have a runner quickly tuck them into their pants. Create a circle with ropes, paint or cones that's 5 to 10 yards in diameter, large enough to move freely within but appropriate to the age and skill level of your players. Align the defender on one side of the circle and the runner with the flags on the other. On the coach’s command, the defender must try to take both flags from the runner. The runner can't use their hands or leave the circle, but may run, jump and spin as much as they want.

Angle race drill

Augle Race Drill

Purpose: This drill provides the correct angle of pursuit for defenders who are trying to make a touchdown-saving tackle. It teaches players two important fundamentals: how to track the near hip of the ball carrier, and how to use the sideline to prevent a running back from cutting back past the would-be tackler. 

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Coaching points: Align a ball carrier on a cone 40 yards from the end zone. The defender sets up at the hash marks with a five-yard head start. Adjust the distance based on ability of the defender, moving the players closer for younger or less-skilled athletes. At the whistle, the ball carrier runs in a dead sprint for the goal line, while the defender closes in on their near hip and attempts to force them to the sideline. The defender must two-hand touch the ball carrier before he scores.

South Carolina pursuit drill

South Carolina pursuit drill

Purpose: This is a fun drill that players love. It's classified as a pursuit drill, but it's really a test of competition that assesses how players think on the run. I learned this drill from Mark Zielinski, the former head coach at North Brunswick Township High School in New Jersey. 

Coaching points: With standing dummies (the lighter variety that can moved easily), line up one less than the number of players in the drill. The ideal number I’ve found to start is five players, four dummies. The players align on the goal line facing the goal post. A coach stands behind each dummy five to 10 yards behind the players so they're out of sight. At the whistle, players do an up-down, then turn around, find the nearest dummy and tackle it. Similar to musical chairs, one player will always be left out. We’ve had coaches move around before the whistle's blown so players have to find them. Each eliminated player sits aside while you dwindle the team down to one winner. This drill is a great way to end practice.   

Takeaway grids

Takeaway grids

Purpose: I'm a big believer teaching circuits and grids. It teaches the same fundamentals to a large number of players and eliminates the standing around that's common in practice. Grids are similar to circuits in that we’ll have lines of players each executing the same technique, whether it’s tackling, block defeating or takeaways.

Coaching points: For our takeaway grid, we’ll go through the following progressions: scramble and recover, scoop and score, club and rip, intercept. Once these are completed, you combine lines and have a competition between players. One time, it could be a scoop and score competition, where each player must scoop the ball and run it back to the coach. If they don’t get it on the first scoop, they must fall on it. A player favorite has been a scramble-and-recover competition, where the coach stands behind the two competitors and rolls the ball, simulating a fumble. Both players must bear crawl – without standing up – to find and corral the ball. This is similar to a 50/50 ball drill done in basketball. Just like the South Carolina Pursuit Drill, we whittle the team down to one winner who represents the entire group.

Here's a video of the progression we use to teach takeaway grids:

We all know how difficult it can be to keep players in tune during what can be a two-hour practice when their minds are flooded with all the other aspects of adolescence. We can't lose sight of the fact kids play sports because it's fun and they get to compete with their friends.

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Mike Kuchar is co-founder and senior research manager at XandOLabs.com, a private research company that specializes in coaching concepts and trends. Reach him at mike@xandolabs.com  or follow him on Twitter @mikekkuchar.

This is an updated version of a blog that originally published Aug. 6, 2015.