In Texas, the land of grid­iron, it’s rugby to the res­cue

Rugby tack­ling tech­niques adopted as coaches aim to avert head in­juries

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - Sports - Ken Bel­son

Ray­mond Kitchen had other places he would rather have been than in a big, empty foot­ball sta­dium at 7am on a Satur­day. But there he was, three days be­fore Christ­mas, with 450 other high school foot­ball coaches, at­tend­ing a two-hour lec­ture on tack­ling at AT&T Sta­dium, the home of the Dal­las Cow­boys.

The lec­ture was a part of an am­bi­tious ef­fort to have all of the state’s 23,000 ju­nior high and high school foot­ball coaches be­come fa­mil­iar with, by Au­gust, a pro­gramme that teaches rugby-style tack­ling. It em­pha­sises the use of the shoul­der, not the head, in bring­ing down the player with the ball.

The pro­gramme was cre­ated by Atavus, a com­pany based in Seat­tle that says it can pro­duce more ef­fec­tive tack­lers by teach­ing de­fend­ers to square up be­fore hit­ting a ball car­rier and to use their shoul­ders and legs for lever­age and power. Coaches like Kitchen seem re­cep­tive to the mes­sage Atavus is try­ing to pop­u­lar­ize.

“It’s where to put your head that is the fo­cus now,” Kitchen, a de­fen­sive coach at James Bowie High School in Ar­ling­ton, said af­ter he fin­ished a writ­ten test that was a part of the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. “Ev­ery year, with CTE, ev­ery coach is now, ‘Get your head out of it,’” he added, us­ing the ini­tial­ism for chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy, a de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease linked to re­peated hits to the head.

From the view­point of the Texas High School Coaches As­so­ci­a­tion, any pro­gramme that might re­duce the num­ber of head in­juries in Amer­i­can foot­ball, and the ap­pre­hen­sion that they cre­ate, is worth look­ing at – even if the pro­gramme is in­spired by a sport, rugby, that is much more prom­i­nent in other parts of the world than it is in the United States.

While par­tic­i­pa­tion in high school foot­ball in Texas has re­mained rel­a­tively steady dur­ing the past decade, the game is not grow­ing in the state as fast as it once was. In part, that is be­cause of spe­cial­i­sa­tion, which has locked some chil­dren into other sports. But an­other fac­tor is the con­cern by a grow­ing num­ber of par­ents that foot­ball is sim­ply too dan­ger­ous.

That con­cern was clearly a part of the nar­ra­tive at the sem­i­nar. Over and over, coaches who were present said the game was “un­der at­tack,” even in Texas, where foot­ball is nearly a re­li­gion. And to a man, they in­sisted that the ben­e­fits of the game – which they main­tain teaches grit­ti­ness and team­work – far out­weighed its risks.

Aware­ness

“The most im­por­tant part of it is get­ting moms to re­alise that the game is safer than it prob­a­bly ever has been be­cause of coaches’ aware­ness of con­cus­sions and all the things we’re try­ing to teach them, and be­cause of the tack­ling train­ing that’s com­ing on board,” said DW Rut­ledge, who re­tired re­cently as the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Texas High School Coaches As­so­ci­a­tion.

Rut­ledge and the as­so­ci­a­tion have tried to re­as­sure skit­tish par­ents by adopt­ing rules that gov­ern when play­ers can re­turn to ac­tion af­ter a con­cus­sion and also limit the num­ber of full-con­tact prac­tices. Now they have turned to the rugby-style tack­ling pro­gramme in their lat­est, and per­haps most elab­o­rate, at­tempt to con­vince scep­tics that foot­ball can be made safer to play.

Rut­ledge and his sec­ond-in-com­mand, Joe Martin, started search­ing for tack­ling pro­grammes about two years ago, con­cerned that state leg­is­la­tors might call for fur­ther re­stric­tions on the sport. The most well-known tack­ling pro­gramme was one de­signed by USA Foot­ball, which is funded by the NFL. But its em­pha­sis was pri­mar­ily on youth foot­ball.

Rut­ledge and Martin wanted some­thing that ad­dressed older and more pow­er­ful ath­letes, and they were im­pressed with Atavus be­cause of the dozens of tech­niques it uses to teach de­fend­ers how to ap­proach ball car­ri­ers and bring them down. Pete Car­roll, the coach of the Seat­tle Sea­hawks, has pro­moted “hawk tack­ling,” which bor­rows heav­ily from rugby. But Atavus, which works with coaches at Ohio State, Michi­gan State, Rut­gers and other col­leges, also uses video to an­a­lyse and rate tack­les as well as iden­tify ad­di­tional drills to ad­dress de­fi­cien­cies.

In seiz­ing on rugby as a model, Atavus chose to high­light a sport in which tack­ling above the shoul­der is not per­mit­ted; some play­ers wear scrum caps but none wear the hard plas­tic hel­mets used in foot­ball; and the rate of con­cus­sions is lower than in foot­ball, ac­cord­ing to Dawn Com­stock, a sports in­jury epi­demi­ol­o­gist at the Colorado School of Pub­lic Health.

Sus­pi­cious

Rex Nor­ris, a former foot­ball coach in Texas who helped de­velop the tack­ling pro­gramme for Atavus, which is called Tack­lyt­ics, knew that some coaches might be sus­pi­cious of tech­niques bor­rowed from rugby, and con­sider them an at­tempt to soften the way foot­ball is played. So he started his hour-long pre­sen­ta­tion last month with a blunt procla­ma­tion: “We be­lieve in tack­ling the legs,” he told the coaches.

“We be­lieve in body-on-body con­tact. And we be­lieve in knock­ing the run­ner back­ward. We know how much this game is chang­ing, and as coaches, we have to con­tinue to change. We have to con­tinue to change how we think, about how we prac­tice.”

Nor­ris spoke to the coaches as a peer. But a part of him was akin to a physics pro­fes­sor try­ing to trans­late com­plex equa­tions into sim­ple con­cepts.

Be­ing an ef­fec­tive tack­ler, he told those at the sem­i­nar, was not just about bring­ing down a ball car­rier, but about max­imis­ing one’s power and con­trol. To tackle ef­fec­tively, a de­fender must take the right an­gle to the ball, face the ball car­rier and use his legs, hips and shoul­der in con­cert.

“It’s not how fast you are com­ing, but if you are un­der con­trol,” he said.

At least anec­do­tally, the Atavus tack­ling tech­nique ap­pears to help. Rod­ney Webb, the head coach at Rock­wall High School, about a half-hour’s drive from Dal­las, started us­ing the pro­gramme in 2016. While his play­ers quickly learned the drills in prac­tice, their re­sults dur­ing games did not im­prove un­til the sec­ond sea­son.

In the sea­son and a half since then, the num­ber of missed tack­les fell 30 per cent dur­ing games, Webb said, and his var­sity team had no con­cus­sions in the most re­cent sea­son.

“When it comes to tack­ling, it is a safer prac­tice and a bet­ter prac­tice,” he said of the rugby-style tech­nique. “It’s a win-win.” – New York Times

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AL BELLO/GETTY IM­AGES

Cas­sius Marsh (right) of the Seat­tle Sea­hawks hits his hel­met against quarterback Ryan Fitz­patrick of the New York Jets for a penalty dur­ing a game in Oc­to­ber 2016.

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