The methods and importance of teaching tracking: Part two

By Andy Ryland | Posted 9/19/2022

USA Football Senior Manager of Education and Engagement Andy Ryland is a former Penn State linebacker and member of the U.S. Men’s Rugby National Team. Ryland is an expert on tackling and preparation for contact with athletes, consistent with USA Football's Football Development Model. He also assists coaches of all sports in areas of drill design and skill development.   

In part one, we talked about what tracking really is and what makes it difficult, defining the real challenge. We talked about the keys being reading and adjusting to a live carrier, which means adjusting angles, speeds and movement patterns. We also discussed variability and needing lots of diverse, different experiences of the same task (getting to the ball) to prepare for applying it to games because it is never the exact same situation. 

There are infinite variations, but that isn’t overwhelming or a death sentence. If we know our principles and have variability in applying those principles, we can win. To do that, we want what we ‘know’ to be closer to the ‘unknown’ current problem, meaning easier adjustments and smaller tweaks. We talked about how predetermined angles, predetermined speed, non-evasive carriers don’t get us close enough (seeing, processing, problem solving) for gameday transfer. 

When it comes to building tracking activities here are some major concepts. 


At its core level, Tracking is an agility activity. If you are up on your strength and conditioning (S&C) research, you will know there is a difference in change of direction (COD) and agility activities. If you are unaware of this, Google, read and study lots. This is important. COD activities involve planned changing directions or patterns of movement. These are things like running to and around lines and cones as “change markers.” This allows athletes to prepare for the change. Think about the last few steps approaching a line, notice how athletes pre-organized to touch and go. Agility must involve perception, that is taking in information and reacting to a stimulus.  

Notes: This means that all of the Combine testing drills are COD, not agility. While coaches pointing, whistles and lights are technically agility (the field drills), research also shows they don’t improve game performance when used in training. You just get better at that task. You are learning to react to a stimulus that is too different from the game to have transfer. Players need to learn how to read a carrier and space.  

Some athletes with great COD capabilities struggle with agility activities because they are slow in the ‘processing’/’reading’ aspect, or they are paying attention to the wrong information. Some elite athletes can make up the difference at lower levels with pure physical output but eventually the ability of the opponents will catch up to them. So, it’s fair to say we want perceptive athletes. We want truly agile athletes. 

That is not to say increasing change of direction mechanics, efficiency or force producing capabilities can’t help. If we look at agility as half perception and half COD, we can reverse engineer it. The COD part will be influenced by body control, coordination, technique/mechanics and physical outputs. Great physical qualities that help COD can (and CAN is massive, it is not guaranteed) improve performance. A lot of this is due to it providing a buffer and allowing athletes to stay in the play even if they aren’t perfect.  

Example: If I have great acceleration, I might be slow on a read but make up the ground. A slower athlete must read it quicker or be outrun. Physical abilities may offer more options to athletes, such as pure speed allowing for a more direct angle or being able to come to balance later because of great body control. On the same line, increased perception abilities can keep average athletes on pace with better natural athletes who don’t read as well. I am not glossing over the S&C physical side, it’s a real thing, everyone should train these foundations, but most youth athletes are getting this taken care of by mother nature and maturity (strength, power, speed, coordination and control). Older athletes most likely have the basics covered in the S&C program run by their team. COD and basic strength/power training are the norm.  

I do feel that off-season agility games (chase, tag, one-v-one and group leverage style activities) are a great way to “steal” more reps and help athletes build the database. It is too common for coaches to spend all of the off-season doing just COD. If we are talking about pure training blocks, the NFL (20 weeks) and college (8-10 in winter and 10-12 in summer) we have massive time away from skills. This means players spend extended time away from the perception part of our agility equations. I wouldn’t want to spend two to four months only working half the equation! This can be a sneaky time to get them better at reading real live people and “winning the space.”  

I’m not advising anyone to break the rules by doing football activities, but you can work on tracking by doing agility games. Work in the weight room on force producing abilities tighten up technique and mechanics to put force in the right directions and improve efficiency, but remember the other half too. Work on Tracking/agility versus live people and track them down!  

**Oh my goodness, is that a balanced statement? Yes, weight room work, COD work and agility work can and should all work together. You don’t have to pick just one.** 

Does our opponent move and challenge us like a carrier would? 

The number one coaching cue I give to athletes acting as the ball carrier in Tracking activities is “win.” Yes, it’s that simple. What we want to avoid is preplanned angles, unrealistic or unchanging speeds and half-hearted changes of direction. Half-speed tracking is not tracking, it’s going through the motions. Speed of reads are key as we mentioned, so players must be tested with speed. I one hundred percent believe in going full evasion in small spaces instead of slowing the players down. Small to big approach is better than slow to fast when it comes to reading a real carrier who is trying to get away.  These slow drills just reassure the coaches that the player knows what they want. You don’t want to find out on gameday they ‘know’ but can’t ‘do.’ The carrier should always try to win; intent is the simplest way to add realism. This is easily done in tracking activities because things can be full-evasion, full-speed and still non-contact via tag-offs, flags or a host of other toys. 

Note: These are also great for offensive players because they need to learn to win too. You know all those COD and jump cut drills you do with offensive players? They need to learn to read defenders and use moves ‘in-time’ with the play to win when it matters. A lot of fast, athletic players are not great in the open field. 

Advanced realism example: I have often said one of the biggest culprits in the realism aspect are defensive linemen. Because a lot of tracking and tackle work is done in Individual period or position groups, they end up tracking other line players. Will tracking your third string nose guard, the player that is not athletic enough to get on the field for your defense, help your team track the guys they will face on gameday in the starting running back spot? Remember, they gave the ball to that player for reasons, including speed and evasion. Get good at the actual task. Steal fast guys when you can for this drill, just use realistic spaces. Big vs, big agility is great for both players general movement, but when it comes to pure tracking and tackle work, I want the problem to look like gameday. 

Over control by the coach 

Coaches love control. How often have you seen a coach controlling the runner in a drill by telling them when to go to the corner or when to cut back? You know the coach standing behind the drill pointing to all the cones and drawing lines in the air, run to X cone/bag before cutting back this direction. Why is this bad? Mostly because it doesn’t force the defender to track like a game and it doesn’t “punish” the tracker for giving something up. For instance, if a runner is running to the cone and the defender is inside (not back hip but inside a big step), the natural reaction might be to accelerate and take the corner. The carrier sees the space. They could get there in real play, or maybe they just need a stutter and go, but due to coach control they have to cut back. They cut back into the tackle, and everyone thinks the defender solved the problem and it was good. But the defender’s actual relationship to the carrier can easily go unseen and the fact that they gave up the corner is never identified. The same holds true when players have to go to the corner but because the defender has turned his hips to run, the cutback is there, and it goes unpunished. 

Allowing the offensive player to take what’s available starts to show the defender and the coach what the defender is giving up. It also shows how they read and process the angles and changes. It forces them to hold positions that best take away all options, and it gives them a self-reference point for, “when I got here, I gave this up, when I was there, I made the play.” Now they understand their personal movement and spacing. 

Letting thing two distract from thing one 

This is so common! In chasing efficiency coaches combine a lot of things, but it ends up none of them are good enough to stress and train the actual ability. 

I think Angle Tackle is the best example of this. We want to add some movement to a tackle to ‘make it real’ so we add an angle track to the tackle. Coaches feel good, we are going to track on the angle, work a moving target and tackle the carrier, but are you actually training tracking? Let’s say the carrier changes some speed or uses some footwork and the tackles look bad. The coach yells at the carriers for ruining the drill, so the angles and speed get predetermined and dialed back. The tackles look better because the movement problem is easy to solve. Coach feels good, “our tackling is great.” But we don’t know if we can track and tackle. If you put together everything we talked about up to this point, we clearly see that there is no real tracking in these drills. It’s simply moving hits. Our desire for efficiency, and “perfect” took away from our tracking.  

You can still do angle tackle if you like. It’s good for getting the hits in, but it won’t improve your tracking (and it probably won't get you better at tackling, as commonly done it is literally just getting the hits in). If you’re looking to get your hits then use it, but be honest about the holes it leaves. You will need to supplement this activity with real, evasive tracking. 

You can be okay with messy tackles because the tracking and evasion aspect is hard, and you are developing real game skills. When I do high evasion tracking drills with contact, I am well aware the tackling will be stressed, and it will not always be pretty. That’s okay, because the goal of the drill is getting better at tracking while learning to make real tackles in a variety of situations based on the space we win. The choice is yours based on your needs and goals for the day. Do you just want some simulated hits, or do you want to train the full, real problem?   

Progression and knowing the limits of drills 

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. If it doesn’t challenge you it won’t change you. That’s at least what coaches like to quote before running the same drill for eight weeks in a row even after the point the players have mastered it. It’s comfortable, and no one is being challenged. 

While it may seem that I have talked down on drills like Run and Gather and basic Angle Tackle, I want to be clear about ideas of scaling and progressing. I use those drills. For me, those are very early introduction drills that have a very limited shelf life. I have said in pervious posts that my goal is to make my own drills too easy and rendered warm-ups as fast as possible. So, while I do those drills and like those drills, I know their limits and they are by no means a goal or an end. They are (hopefully) week one activities. 

As a coach, you are mostly a stress manager. You have your hands on a dial that you turn up or down as needed to match the abilities and level of your players. Players need to be stretched to learn, so turn it up. You don’t want to frustrate or ruin confidence, so don’t turn it up too high. That is coaching. 

If we look at Run and Gather, we see it lacks a good bit of realism, evasion, options and threats. That means it’s low on our transfer scale, and the game-stress is low. What it can be good for is introducing and reinforcing principles – the idea of changing movement patterns and speed to stay back hip and leverage side. An obvious question is, do your players not know that at this point? Is that the performance limiter or is it reading, matching and executing that gets you in trouble? Staying with drills too long is a major problem, especially the “old classics.” Remember, it’s about the athletes in front of you and what do they need. “See Spot Run” is a classic book but only serves a particular audience and won’t earn you a literature degree. Match the stress and scale the activities based on how much challenge your players need, not what you like. 

How do we best challenge your players’ needs in realistic micro-environments that will grow true agility and Tracking? Now that we have defined the problem and laid the big rocks, part three of this series will address the core items I use and think all coaches must address and consider adding to their activities.