Proper Form for Football Tackles: Is Improved Technique Enough to Protect Youth Players?

There is no question that football is a full-contact sport that has the potential to cause a variety of injuries, some of which can be very serious.  There is also no question that tackles are the most dangerous part of the game. Concussions and other head injuries, plus damage to the neck and spine can not only put a player out of commission, they may also lead to permanent injury or death.

Today’s professional football players are large, strong and fast. The traditional wraparound tackle places the head into harm’s way and increases the risk of injury. Football officials are promoting a method to change all this. To prevent or lessen this danger, the objective is to take the head out of play as much as possible. This is called the “heads-up” method of tackle. The experts say that you should not lead with your head down, as this can be dangerous not only for the tackler but also for the ball carrier.

Why has this become such an issue? The Washington Post reported in early 2013 that professional football injuries have risen between 2000 and 2011 from 2,640 to 4,473 injuries. In that same period, the average number of weeks a player spends on the NFL injury report has grown from 3.24 to 4.12 weeks. So, there are not only more injuries across the board, but longer lasting injuries as well.

The method recommended by professional football officials, including the NFL commissioner, and even the CDC, involves a specific form of stance and approach. With the head up and back, the chest forward and the arms extended slightly with elbows pointed down and knuckles pointed up, the tackler uses their leg muscles and hips to lunge upward, driving the chest and shoulders into the ball carrier. The tackler ends by throwing what looks like double uppercuts.

But not everyone agrees that the technique promoted by football officials is practical or that it’s likely to reduce the game’s inherent risks in any meaningful way. Matt Chaney, an analyst of football health issues, including catastrophic injuries, wrote a scathing critique of the method in a 2012 issue of Slate magazine. Chaney wrote, “As a former head-basher in NCAA football, I can say that this is a technique that I’ve seen precisely no one, ever, use on the field.” So, even though coaches may train and drill the technique, according to Matt Chaney, it isn’t used in the real world. Chaney explains, “To ask the body, while traveling at [football] speed, to crane the neck up and back, in defiance of physics, is a fool’s errand.”

At the same time, however, it is clear that some approaches to tackling—and being tackled—are safer than others. And the incentives to reduce serious injuries are beginning to grow for everyone in the broader football community, from team owners and coaches to the players themselves. Rule changes, improvements in protective gear and—yes—advances in tackling techniques all have a role to play. This is especially true in youth football programs.

Professional football players take their chances. After all, it’s part of their chosen career. However, juvenile players require more care and guidance. So what can be done to protect youth players? While some believe that better education and training (as well as better equipment) is the answer, others think that the nature of tackle football itself is the problem. Unlike baseball, which is sometimes described as men playing a boys’ game, tackle football is in some respects a man’s game being played by boys. This is the perspective taken by Matt Chaney. “If the NFL is truly serious about protecting kids,” wrote Chaney, “instead of building up the sport’s talent pool, then the league and the players’ union should start listening to the growing medical call to end tackle football for pre-adolescents.”

The Presidential Youth Fitness Program in Focus

The Youth Fitness Test that was first implemented in 1966 was designed to do something very specific and relatively straightforward—to measure each student’s physical ability and compare it to the physical ability of other boys and girls of the same age.  However, as times have changed, public health officials have recognized a need to expand their approach to assessment and to make it more useful for students, parents, teachers and school administrators alike.

Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, believes the old Youth Fitness Test had some basic design limitations.  Its definition of fitness was too narrow, it was too focused on peer comparison and it provided little actionable information about each student’s actual health.  These limitations have become more important in light of today’s public health challenges.  Rates of chronic disease are growing rapidly and most experts agree that a lack of exercise is a major contributor to the problem.  According to Ms. Pfohl, “What is really apparent is that we have an obesity epidemic in our country, so we feel like we now need to focus on health versus athletic performance…  By design, the old test compared kids against each other, so by design 50% failed.”

In response to concerns like these, the test has recently been given a major overhaul and the new Presidential Youth Fitness Program has been revised to promote exercise as a means of achieving good overall health.  Under the new health-based approach, kids are now evaluated periodically using a broader set of measurements called the Fitnessgram® assessment.  The assessment measures five aspects of health-related fitness: body composition, muscle strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness or aerobic capacity and flexibility.  Students’ scores in each of these areas are compared to a set of Healthy Fitness Zone standards, and the overarching goal is for them to show improvement over time.  In other words, it’s about progress rather than point-in-time performance.

The new Presidential Youth Fitness Program encourages students to develop personal fitness goals that will hopefully remain with them throughout their lifetime.  First Lady Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move!” initiative in order to help solve the growing problem of childhood obesity.  She said of the revised youth fitness program, “One of the reasons I’m excited about the new program is because kids won’t be measured on how fast they can run compared to their classmates, it’ll be based on what they can do and what their own goal is. This is important because we want physical activity to be a lifelong habit.”

The Fitnessgram® uses a skin-fold test to measure body composition (the amount of body fat in relation to weight and height, also referred to as BMI).  It uses push-ups, modified pull-ups and curl-ups to measure muscle strength.  Aerobic capacity is measured by a PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run) test.  Finally, the sit-and-reach test measures flexibility.

When students score within the Fitnessgram® Healthy Fitness Zone standards in at least five test categories, they are eligible for a Presidential Youth Fitness award.  Those who score below these standards will be given information about the health risks associated with scoring low in the designated areas and will be instructed on ways to achieve better physical fitness.

This program is voluntary for schools, and experts stress that it is just as important to encourage physical activity at home.  As Dr. Kent Adams, professor of kinesiology at California State University at Monterey Bay notes, “Schools are important, yes.  But we have an obligation in our homes and communities to be partners in promoting a healthy lifestyle in our daily lives.”


A Note to Parents About Physical Rehabilitation and Young Athletes

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article noting that “More than 3.5 million children a year receive treatment for a sports injury.”  Given this statistic, it’s important for parents to understand that young athletes require a different approach to rehabilitation than adults do.

Why is this? Primarily because children are still growing and their bones, cartilage and connective tissues are not fully developed. Youngsters whose bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are still changing can be more prone to suffer musculoskeletal injuries from overuse or acute trauma. When it comes to treating sports injuries in young athletes, physical therapy needs to take these facts into account.

Injuries from overuse continue to rise. Baseball and softball injuries to the shoulder and elbow have jumped by 500% since the year 2000. Very young baseball and softball pitchers (ages 9–14) have greater risk of overuse damage because their elbow joint is not fully developed. Ignoring pitch count limits and incorrect biomechanics can increase the risk.

Middle School vs. High School Athletes

As you example above suggests, children in different age groups have differing risks. This applies to all physical activities. This is why middle school children should restrict their repetitive activities to prevent any overuse injuries. Their age alone puts these younger children at greater risk from such harm.

The Short Story on Rehabilitation

The objective of all therapy is to return the young athlete to health as soon as possible and to determine when it will be safe to resume athletic activities. Because of the differences between middle school and high school children, rehabilitation for younger athletes should de-emphasize certain repetitive aspects of physical therapy to prevent additional injuries from overuse. In addition, the focus for these children should not be on returning the young athlete to their sport, but on thorough healing.

Whatever the sport, the role of a well-trained physical therapist or sports chiropractor can go beyond simply helping with recovery. He or she can also help prevent future injuries and improve a young athlete’s performance. The rehabilitation process itself can teach the young athlete some very important lessons about how to care for his or her body and develop training habits that will improve performance and reduce risk. A well-rounded therapeutic approach will expose a patient to concepts in several areas, including the following:

  • Good nutrition and hydration
  • Good sleep habits
  • Strength
  • Endurance
  • Balance
  • Flexibility and range of motion
  • Speed
  • Coordination
  • Correct biomechanics

Of course, an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. It’s a good idea for parents, coaches and healthcare professionals to expose young athletes to these concepts BEFORE they’re injured.  That said, no amount of teaching and preparation can guarantee that a child won’t suffer some type of sports-related injury.  If and when this happens, it’s important to work closely with your physical therapist or sports chiropractor so that your child gets the maximum benefit from his or her time in rehab.