The NFL’s Heads Up Tackling Program will not work. This isn’t an opinion based on some subjective viewpoint of football and tackling but is based on the recognition of legitimate scientific research and a basic understanding of motor learning, motor control, and skill acquisition.

The NFL’s Heads Up Tacking Program will not work because it cannot work. Forget for a moment that there is no such thing as a safe way to tackle another moving person; even if this unicorn-like tackling form existed, the way the NFL is teaching kids to tackle cannot work.

The methods employed by the NFL and USA Football ignore over 100-years of research that shows teaching complex skills in segments is ineffective. When this kind of teaching methods is used, learning occurs in spite of what the coach says or does, not because of it.

This brain-centric model of teaching – “put the right foot here, get your arm up, keep your head up” – assumes everything is stored in the brain. However, this kind of process works only in simplistic laboratory settings, not in complicated environmental situations like sport. Certainly, this approach cannot work when teaching proper tackling technique.

Motor patterns are related to external forces – “context-related variability” – and there is no way a central command center – the brain – can control this. So for tackling another moving person, this motor pattern, the tackle, is dependent on an endless and unpredictable variety of external forces. The variety of ways to tackle cannot be prepared for by breaking down a complex movement into segments, while not wearing equipment against an imaginary opponent.

Now we have to delve into what is called Motor Learning Principles, Part-to-Whole Skill Training, and Whole Skill Training.

In the NFL video, there are 5 steps to the tackle and they breakdown each of these steps. This is known as the Part-to-Whole Skill training progression, which has been shown to be ineffective. Here we have at least 14-16 parts.
* Feet
* Wings
* Sink
* Hands
* On the Clinic Video they add “Stomp leading with the left and right foot.”
* Buzzing the feet
* Quick Rapid Ground Contact (can there be quick, slow GC or slow, rapid GC?)
* Moving forward
* Coming to balance
The NFL combines these last two, but they are separate actions, as you can’t both come forward and come to balance
* Have to be in the right position to make a good solid tackle
In the instructional video they are teaching kids to come to a stop to get into this position.
From what is known about motor learning this is a) not possible b) not controllable c) counter-productive
* Double-uppercut action
* Knuckles up
* Elbows Down
* Explode the hips – exploding the hips from a kneeling position is a completely different action than doing the same from a standing position, and moving is different than stationary.
* Head up
* Chest down

The different drills are shown practicing all of these elements in and out of equipment, which is an ineffective way to practice. Not being in equipment completely changes the way the body moves. If these moves aren’t practiced in an environment close to game and scrimmage conditions there is little, if any, carry over.

Teaching this hit position and separating from the actual tackle – stopping before the point of the tackle to be in the “proper” position – could be considered the worst part of this progression.

Which brings us to the research done by Rushman and Pike. The maximum benefits of a training stimulus – acquiring a skill as permanent behavioral changes – can only be obtained when the stimulus replicates the movements and energy systems involved in the activities of the sport. There is no better training than actually performing in the sport.

The paper, “Motor Learning Principles and the Superiority of Whole Training in Volleyball,” by Steven Bain, Ph.D and Carl McGown, Ph.D examined the method of Whole Skill Training as compared to Part-to-Whole Skill Training and their findings reveal how ineffective the Part-to-Whole Skill method is that is used by NFL and USA Football to teach tackling.

Bain and McGown write, “Part to whole progressions are used because they “make sense” but have no basis in scientific evidence and published research that goes back nearly a century that conclusively demonstrates that part progressions have the minimal transfer to the whole skill and in a number of scientific studies part training methods have demonstrated negative transfer…The most important practice variable in terms of motor skill acquisition is practicing the skill itself…Taken together the weight of scientific evidence indicates that the specificity hypothesis may be as close to a law as any principle in motor learning science.”

Frans Bosch, a coach of elite jumpers, sprinters, and rugby players, a biomechanics and motor learning expert, and a professor of biomechanics at Fontys University in the Netherlands, had this to say about the methods used to teach the Heads-Up Tackling technique. “This is nonsense. There is not one aspect, biomechanical, motor control, motor learning, method, or pedagogical that touches on how the body functions Totally inappropriate in real situations. The only good thing about it is that it is such bad teaching that it will not have any impact. It is just passing time.”

So breaking down the tackle – look at all the segments in the above list – into component parts is a waste of time. The bigger problem here is that a method of tackling is being sold that if it really is safer is not being taught in the proper way. Just like there is no nice way to put handcuffs on a criminal, there is no nice way to tackle another moving person while on the football field. The message should be that football is a violent sport that is not for everyone and that if you want to play you are accepting a great deal of risk, and if you have any doubts you or your kids should sit it out.

The NFL’s Heads-Up Tackling Program cannot work because it does not properly teach kids how to tackle. There is a lot more to the issue, but the bottom line is that if there is a better way to tackle it, the teaching method used by the NFL and USA Football isn’t the way to teach it.


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