Tangible teaching promotes player development; old "coach-isms" -- not so much

By Andy Ryland | Posted 8/10/2022

I started a blog for USA Football detailing and documenting my experience as an assistant coach on a Rookie Tackle football team for first-year tackle players in the third grade in my community.

In the process of writing that blog, something got stuck in my mind that felt like it needed to be addressed.

The oversimplistic and decade-old coach-isms like “how bad do you want it” and “it’s about ‘want to’” are downright silly, especially when it comes to teaching Rookie Tackle.

I have heard these coach-isms yelled around the field too often for my liking over the last three weeks. To be completely honest, I find it lazy coaching. It’s mostly incorrect and often a cover for poor teaching. I’ll explain what I mean.

Whenever a good social chat on tackling comes up, you will find plenty of responses that say, “tackling is about ‘want to.’” I have a proposition for you. Try to tackle Derrick Henry in a one-on-one goal line tackle drill. If you make one tackle, you’ll probably become famous. Henry gets nothing except maybe the pride of not being tackled by a normal nine-to-fiver. 

So, who do you think wants it more?

Who do you think is going to actually win?

I bet we agree here. It’s about a lot more than “wanting to.” It has a lot to do with abilities, both technical and physical. These abilities take teaching, not yelling “how bad do you want it.” At a core level, you have to teach what “it” is. Not giving kids that information and hoping they figure it out is lazy. Let’s not rely on grit and coach-isms to solve our problems.

Above I said “mostly incorrect” because I will admit, there is a thread of something real that I believe these statements originated from. There is a certain level of prerequisite willingness and physicality needed to make a tackle. It’s hard to do it softly. You have to be up for the battle. Proper technique gives you tools to be more confident (hence willingness) and allows you to do the job easier, but at the end of the day, as Richie Gray says, “no matter how detailed we become, we can never come away from the physicality.” A requisite physicality is needed to tackle but how do your players know what that is?

And what is the requisite physicality?

In doing my first tackle session with the third-grade team we practiced angle tackles, starting at one yard and building to three. The ball carrier rarely fell down. I could almost see the players thinking, “this is so different from TV” and “I feel like I’m doing the right things so why isn’t it working?” I don’t tell much at all in practice. I ask a lot of questions. So, I set up a demo of lose arms, weak arms, and strong arms. I asked them which would be best. I clamped on a player and showed ‘tight’ then showed actively squeezing, I asked what happened to his posture. We all agreed you really need a strong clamp. I started all the players pre-engaged and told the runner to try to get away. The defense’s job was not to take them down (yet) but just to squeeze and stay connected. Here they felt what strong really meant. When we went back to angle tackles, things got much better – that took a total of three to four minutes.

This is the key point and part of teaching. Most players don’t even understand the standard. It’s not about “want to,” (trust me the kids wanted too, I saw the disappointment in their eyes when it didn’t work) it’s about understanding what is required. It’s not that they didn’t want to, it’s that they don’t know how hard it actually is.

After my practice, I made it a point to walk around to the players and ask them what they learned that day. If they answered ‘tackling” I made them specify. What about tackling? Six of the individuals said something to the effect of how strong the arms had to be or how hard they had to squeeze.

This was a textbook example of not knowing what they don’t know. They thought it would be easier because they see it thousands of times on TV. The athletes thought that if they got to the right positions and did the correct movement it would happen. They didn’t understand the strength, power and standard required to make someone fall down. We taught it as a discovery session with the goal of deep understanding what they need to do to be successful. The players learned the standard and enjoyed it.

This is not just for youth. I have seen it with college freshman stepping up in level, world-class rugby and in the NFL. The jump between non-resisted drill (hitting a bag or teammate jumping in the air) and competitive opponent demands a certain level of strength, physicality and work that the drill doesn’t require. When first moving from simple drills, a defensive player is not used to the competitive situation and their standard of physicality is not up to the level. Because they are elite players they lock back in, realize how fast and strong they have to be and fix it quickly, but most kids don’t have that reference.

Many times, elite players ‘know,’ but they also slip. Call it lazy or a loss of focus but in the moment, they forget the speed or strength of the clamp and it falls off. Simply stated, the standard slipped, or they forgot how hard it really is. That is why we call it the standard. It’s an all-the-time thing you need to bring to every tackle. Another common error is thinking the big bump will finish the job, but it doesn’t. Again, that’s a mismatch of what it actually takes versus what the player thinks it will take.

Now back to “want to.” I don’t think it’s about “want to,” it’s about first knowing the standard of effort and strength and acknowledging what is required. That knowledge can’t be told, it has to be experienced, felt, learned and trained. If a player doesn’t know the true demands of the task, of course they won’t give the effort you want. Another example is leg drive. I saw multiple defenders go down to a knee on contact. Every coach in the world screams about leg drive and moving your feet as a defender, so why did it happen? The kids were not prepared for the force of the bump to challenge their posture and body position. They weren’t prepared or tight enough. They thought driving their legs would be easy because coach told them to do it. Now they had to fight through a little bump and hold their position against force. That is the difference between knowing what is required and blindly trying to do a difficult thing with no frame of reference.

It wasn’t until we did our series of drills and had our talk that my player recognized what was truly required. If you don’t expose your players to that, they will never know what they need to bring next time. If after every miss they are told to “want it more,” how can we expect them to fix what they got wrong? What will help you fix what you don’t know? Will power or recognition of the desired action and getting to physically feel what it requires?

It’s lazy to scream “want to” if you haven’t ever broken down and shown kids success and failure and connected it to physicality. Not a lecture, not coach-isms but a learned item where player can voice back to you, “I really need to be faster with my arms” or “I need to squeeze a lot stronger.” 

Lazy coaches use big general terms like “want to” while good coaches point out that the physicality of the strike or the strength of the arms were not up to standard. It’s not magic, it’s not desire, it’s focus and commitment to a known quality.

Don’t run away from coaching. Don’t blame mentality. Root the actions in an anchor of what is required. If third graders can get it after one session, I’d bet some good exposure and a quality teaching session will bring this to the forefront of your athletes’ minds, too. Once football players understand what is required, they can commit to bringing it to every tackle situation.