Journal of a Youth Coach: Breaking down a practice and tackle session

By Andy Ryland | Posted 10/11/2022

USA Football Senior Manager of Education and Engagement Andy Ryland recently volunteered to be an assistant coach for his 8-year-old son's Rookie Tackle youth football team. 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. This series of journal entries chronicles his family's 2022 youth football experience.  

Want to see a real practice and tackle session? 

This is a more practical blog post. I noticed that these have focused heavily on the philosophy of coaching and wanted to stay true to some of the roots of why I got involved in the first place (teaching the thing I love, tackling). 

Today’s session: 

First up, Tackle Primer block. These change day-to-day and week-to-week, but the goals are simple. Bridge the gap between general warm-up and the harder tackle work to come while reviewing our key tackle learnings. I think of it like the weight room. You may do a general warm-up but you probably do some warm-up sets and build up the weight (intensity) before doing a lift at 90% of max weight. 

  1. Shoulder hits – three a side = simply partnering up and getting a good shoulder-to-shoulder bump each side. Focus on staying square, punching the shoulder and warming up to contact. 

  1. Kneeling Side on Tackle – two each side each player = both players on knees, runner turned at 90-degree angle. Tackler on knees hinges from hips, extend, hit, clamp, and take the carrier over and to the ground. Increasing the hit power as we warm up, big focus on clamp and shoulder getting deep. Intro to going to the ground and getting the kids falling and rolling. 

    1. I always do this as a side-on tackle just because it keeps the lower body in a position to not get caught underneath itself and end up folded back. 

  2. Zombie Tackle – four yards apart – one each side each player. Stay on feet, don’t finish to ground. Working dip time, a massive challenge with younger kids. Also, shoulder accuracy. My kids have a tendency to miss off to the side, shoulder barley making contact with torso, not in on the center line. We seem to have lots of glancing shoulders. Work on getting deep and middle. 

Teaching/Review Block 

  1. “From the legs” = not something I have ever done before, and I just made up the name as I was writing this. I noticed we are not good at ‘hitting’, all of our power comes from speed. Youngsters are still developing strength and power as they mature so it may not feel natural to stay patient and hit by using the legs. They want to generate power from speed. I wanted them to feel and learn how much power can be had from just their lower body, even when stationary. We got in a hit position, foot to foot offset like a good leverage tackle. While keeping the feet planted, we worked on sinking and exploding, generating power from just our lower body. Extend the knees, power from the legs, feet still, push through the ground fast and strike. Both players explode at same time, athletes hit shoulder to shoulder, trying to find the biggest hit they could from that position just with their legs. 

    1. It was super interesting to see the movement strategies, how they organized, their coordination and how they tried to find power. 

    2. Way too many went way to up, striking more vertically and not cutting through the target. It’s ok, it’s why we did the drill. I see this as an issue at all levels, and I don’t think strike through is taught well enough. This was a good introduction.  

    3. I also took the easy gains. My philosophy with kids is not to beat a dead horse. Do something, show some improvement, move on. It’s not about perfection. They have short attention, and we will come back to it again. This starts to align for long term recall and Randomized Training, not Block Training. If you don’t know block vs. serial vs. randomized training, go learn that right now. 

  2. Cap and Wall 

    1. I love my “play through situation” drills. Free open, play. Small-sided games (SSG). We do lots of 1 v 2, 2 v 2 and 3 v 2’s. Today’s were focused on the perimeter run and working the sideline from both an inside chase defender (wall) and a top-down defender (cap). 

    2. The goal was for the wall defender (a linebacker in this case) to chase and push to the sideline. The runner started on the sideline, and just downfield with the linebacker inside about four yards, and slightly behind. Their job is to keep them in the ‘fatal funnel”. If they take a poor angle and get out run, the runner can swerve inside around the deep defender. If he overshoots the angle the runner cuts back and is again in the open field, one-on-one with the safety. They need to take the right line, wall them against the sideline and take the hip. 

    3. The cap defender (safety or other deep defensive back) needs to come down. They can’t wait. They want to think about getting linked up with the other defender to form a two-player little net. In coming top down, their job is to ‘cap’ the play and not let it run straight downfield, or away from pursuit. They have to force it to move either out of bounds or back to pursuit. 

    4. We tried this as “Clamp and Control”/Thud tempo drill to really work the tracking. Kids, who lack body control (developing athletes), tend to fall down a lot or struggle with the bump, so we had way more completed tackles than designed, but it did keep the intensity in check. 

Work Block – done as a team 

  1. Sweep SSG 

    1. Again, another play through the situation, little 2 v 2 small-sided game. In this one, we moved the chase defender to a corner. Now the safety and corner had to fit from outside-in instead of inside-out. I wanted to make sure to give the team both looks at playing the outside run. 

    2. We also gave the runner a lead blocker because we needed practice playing lead blocks – we don’t see many stalks from wide receivers. 

    3. Offensively we must do better blocking in space and finding defenders not lined up right across from us. Plus, our runner doesn’t always follow their lead blocks, so it was nice two-for-one. 

    4. The corner had to compress the edge and beat the block. They could use speed movement or block defeat. They were also working hard on containing the ball and not letting it outside. Dipping inside or crossing face gives up the corner. It’s super common with kids that are so aggressive to the blocker to run themselves out of the tackle. 

    5. The safety had to read the play in front of him. Did the ball bounce outside or bang inside, fit and make the tackle. 

    6. It ended up being a really nice little drill. See the “keep football fun with your child at home and learn through small-sided games” episode for a write-up on small-sided games vs. Oklahoma and why this spacing and options makes it good learning and not simply smashing for the sake of smashing. We give both sides plenty of options to win. 

We did all of this in under 20 min of work. We did have a water break thrown in, so the total practice time was 23 minutes. The players did their blocking technique work during the Primer and Review session as part of circuits. We came together for Group Tackle work. It was a great little contact portion of practice that was not all full-go but had a small dose to keep our skills up. 

Practice also included some routes, passing and catching on air while rotating quarterbacks. We did some one-on-one routes with coverage that the boys really enjoyed. Plus, we had some team offensive play review. Nice little practice, short, sharp and quick since it’s getting darker earlier, and we don’t have lights. That’s real life on unlined public parks for practice. Youth football, got to enjoy getting back to the roots.