This article was first published on Aug. 31, 2012.
The idea of taking a hit from NFL linebackers Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher? Scary.
Learning how to give – and take – a hit as a youth football player? Equally scary.
For most children, their earliest life lessons include the one that says hitting other people is bad. But by 8 or 9 years old, they can be taught how to safely do so on the football field.
Andy Ryland, manager of football development for USA Football, said by that age, kids are at a more physically advanced state and can accept the physical impulses that come with contact.
Just as importantly, they can comprehend the emotional component of what they’re doing.
“It’s not always an easy thing, understanding hitting, being hit and the purpose of it, but it’s there at the Under-8 level,” Ryland said. “All those ideas are contradictory to the rest of their lives. If it’s okay to hit on the football field, what does that mean? What does it mean if you’re good at it? What does it mean if you’re bad at it? What if friends make fun of you or if people think you’re the best at it? All that goes into the first time you explore this new skill.”
USA Football recommends coaches teach tackling skills in a progressive manner through a system called Levels of Contact. Players should build their skill sets against air and tackling dummies before progressing to light contact and finally full contact.
Taking small steps helps a player’s feel more certain in his skills.
Joel Hoisington, coach with the Rockford Rockets Football League in Rockford, Mich., has an approach to not just teach players how to properly hit but how to built their confidence in the process.
“First, we explain to them football is a contact sport, and you will get hit, and that way they aren’t surprised,” Hoisington said. “We walk through the process and the risk of injury. Ultimately, we don’t want them to be scared, so we go through drills step-by-step in a non-contact atmosphere. We slow it down so they understand the right techniques for tackling, balance and body position. Then we increase the speed. A lot of positive reinforcement, a lot of encouragement and plenty of kids take to it right away.”
But not all are going to be quick on the jump. Plenty of players simply don’t excel quickly at tackling for a variety of reasons. In that case, Hoisington stresses patience and a willingness to understand each individual situation.
“When it comes to tackling, we look at each kid. We ask what the fear is,” he said. “My son, even now, after six years of tackle football, he wants to hit hard. But while he gets better every year, he’s still just a little bit behind. Sometime it’s because of inner fear, or sometimes it’s just the kid’s ability level isn’t there.”
Like everything else, tackling becomes easier the more players do it. Billy Avalos, commissioner of the NERF League in Las Cruces, N.M., said the key is building and maintaining a level of confidence.
“Sometimes you get kids who don’t want to hit or tackle, and I always tell them, ‘It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish,’ ” he said. “When you’re done trying it the first time, you won’t be as fearful. How I did it last year with a young boy was I kept establishing positive reinforcement. I kept telling him how good he was doing, and by the end of the year, he saw he could do it. He wasn’t the best at it, but he was getting the job done. And that’s all that matters.”