High School Sports

NWC coaches trying to be proactive in stopping concussions

Blaine head coach Jay Dodd talks to his team during a timeout in November of 2013. Dodd and his coaching staff have started teaching the Borderites the rugby style of tackling in an effort to reduce the risk of head and neck injuries.
Blaine head coach Jay Dodd talks to his team during a timeout in November of 2013. Dodd and his coaching staff have started teaching the Borderites the rugby style of tackling in an effort to reduce the risk of head and neck injuries. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

It happens hundreds of times in every football game. The most basic principle of the sport — the tackle.

But tackling is no easy task, and all coaches have their own way of going about it. Two methods stand out:

▪ Hit with the near shoulder, wrap up, use your leverage and twist the ball carrier to the ground.

▪ Look at the target, keep your head up, slide your helmet across the chest plate of the person you’re attempting to tackle at the last second, keep your legs moving and drive the ball carrier to the ground.

It’s new age versus traditional football, but both emphasize keeping the head out of the equation, both are designed to protect the tackler from concussion and high school coaches are split on which to use.

“Obviously we want any sports program to be as safe as possible, but I also think we need to respect the heritage of the sport and what it’s about,” Mount Baker High School football coach Ron Lepper said.

As concussions have taken on a larger role in the sports media spotlight over the past several years, coaches, parents and athletes are trying to find ways to stay safer on the field.

In all sports.

While football is getting most of the publicity, and rightly so, as data from the Center of Disease Control shows football has nearly double the concussion rate of the next closest Washington high school sport — girls’ soccer — other sports are also combating concussion risks through prevention.

Coaches from around the Northwest Conference are saying the world of sports is changing in response to the new findings about concussions, and they’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.

Practice makes perfect? The coaches’ dilemma

Whether it’s soccer or football, coaches seem to agree the best way to prevent concussions is to teach the proper techniques — the proper way to tackle, the proper way to head the ball, the proper way to play.

The biggest divide, though, comes in football. Tackling is such a huge part of the game, coaches and organizations are trying to figure out the safest way to go about it.

In the past five years, a new style of tackling — in all ages of football — has become increasingly popular. Blaine’s football program is just following suit.

“Tackling has definitely changed,” Blaine football coach Jay Dodd said. “Just in recent years, the last five to 10 years, we’ve changed our way of tackling, too. We’ve really started to teach our players about rugby tackling and how rugby players tackle.”

The rugby tackle has been around for decades and put simply, it’s a shoulder tackle, a wrap and a twist. Because rugby doesn’t have the same equipment football players use, players have to tackle this way to avoid head injuries.

Football is now taking the basics of that and applying it to the gridiron.

“We’ve been to numerous clinics and sat down and watched many practices at the University of Washington and the Seattle Seahawks, and they’re all using rugby tackling as well,” said Dodd, whose been coaching football for 15 years.

Not everyone is on board with the rugby tackle, however.

In small-town Deming, Lepper, who’s been coaching football since 1985, teaches his own style of tackling.

Anybody whose watched a Mount Baker football game knows the Mountaineers are a physical, hard-nosed team, and players don’t want to be on the wrong side of a “Baker Tackle.”

At it’s core, the tackle — basics include keeping your head up, looking at the target and driving through the ball carrier — is designed to put fear into the opponent. But it also teaches kids how to avoid concussions, Lepper insists.

“Out of how many thousand tackles in a football season, we have maybe 10 ‘Baker Tackles’ that actually happen the correct way,” Lepper said. “But it saves guys because they don’t put their heads down. We talk about ‘see what you hit’ and if a guy (puts their head down) out here, we get on them.”

Both styles of tackling take practice.

However, training time may get tougher to come by with some states limiting teams to a set amount of practice days where contact is allowed.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the governing body for Washington state athletics, has not implemented such a rule yet, but Lepper wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of regulation is coming.

“To me, limiting the amount of contact doesn’t fit everybody. I’m not saying I want to go gung ho and do whatever I want, but if they’re looking at going to two days a week limiting contact, then what happens in two-a-days when you’re trying to build that body up?” Lepper said. “To me, that would really put a crimp in how we do things. Obviously I want to be as safe as possible ... but instead of being theoretical, let’s be honest about what’s going to transfer out to the football field.”

Stretch, strengthen and prevent

One of the more effective ways to prevent concussions is strengthening the neck and shoulder muscles, something soccer coaches, such as Meridian girls’ coach Terri Tigert and Burlington-Edison girls’ coach Ryan Kuttel, haven’t integrated into the program but are considering doing so in future years.

“We definitely emphasize proper warming up, but as far as a specific weight program to build neck muscles in the high school program is not really something we have done,” Kuttel said. “But it’s something we might look toward doing in the future.”

Football on the other hand is already incorporating neck and shoulder strengthening exercises into their programs.

For Mount Baker this is an important part of any training where contact is involved, which happens about three days a week.

“We stretch our necks before practice, and after practice we strengthen them,” Lepper said.

The Seahawks Way

The Seattle Seahawks have popularized rugby tackling. Pete Carroll released the first video describing the way the Seahawks tackle before the start of the 2014 season but updated that video this year “to educate coaches, players and fans outside of the organization about the team’s methods of tackling,” according to their website. To view the video, visit seahawks.com/video/2015/06/11/2015-seahawks-tackling.

Heads up tackling

USA Football is asking youth football coaches to become certified and teach Heads Up Tackling in an effort reduce the risk of concussions. Full information and videos of the tackling technique can be found at usafootball.com/health-safety/how-to-tackle, but the technique basically breaks tackling down into five steps:

1. Breakdown position: The foundation starting position for all movements and drills.

2. Buzzing the feet: The technique for regaining balance after tracking a ball carrier and returning to the breakdown position before contact.

3. Hit position: Using correct body posture at the moment of impact for safer tackling, making sure a tackler’s head and eyes are up and using the front of the shoulder as the point of contact.

4. Shoot: Opening of hips to generate power and create an ascending tackle.

5. Rip: With the head to the side and away from contact, throwing double uppercuts and “grab cloth” on the back of jersey to secure the tackle. Then lifting to make the tackle, rather than traditional wrapping up.

SOURCE: USAfootball.com