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The Art and Science of Tackling - Part I The Problem With Tackling

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© October, 2011

by Dr. Michael Yessis
President, Sports Training, Inc.

A coach’s strategy is only as good as the athletes’ physical and technical abilities allow. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it is often overlooked. When a coach’s strategy backfires, the coach gets blamed for the poor play or for losing the game. More often than not, however, it is due to the athletes’ lack of physical and technical abilities which do not allow the players to carry out their assignments. One example of the lack of technical and physical ability is the great number of missed tackles.

Over the last few years, I don’t think I’ve seen a single football game on the high school, collegiate or professional level in which an appreciable number of tackles were not  missed. Most of them are quite obvious, especially on the professional level. The defender has his arms wrapped around the ball carrier who then breaks loose and continues running. Or, a diving tackle is missed in which the tackler’s arms just slide down the runners legs as the runner continues on his way. In some cases the ball carrier easily knocks one of the tackler’s arms away to break the tackle.

There are even instances in which the defender is running directly behind the ball carrier but never makes the tackle. It is as though he only wants to grab him around the shoulders in order to make the tackle. It is also possible to see many tackles made with the arms around the chest. Very few are made around the hips or below.

Why are so many tackles missed? From my analysis of unsuccessful tackles, I have identified several possible reasons that relate to technique and the physical abilities specific to tackling. In regard to technique, because of the great number of different forms of tackling, it appears that there is no consensus as to how a tackle should be executed.  

Many years ago, we were taught to go for the hips since this is where the player’s center of gravity (center of mass) is typically located. This can still be seen on the high school and collegiate levels. But because tackles around the hips are becoming rarer today, especially on the collegiate and professional levels, it makes one wonder what is being taught. Tackling around the hips or below is still the most effective way (from a biomechanical point of view) of bringing down the ball carrier.

In analyzing the flying or diving tackle, the arms are overhead (in relation to the anatomical position of the body) and wrapped around the hips or thighs. This critical aspect is often overlooked. To duplicate this position while standing, your arms would be completely overhead and pressing together. When tackling around the hips or below and the body is horizontal, the arms are still in the same relationship to the body. I emphasize this point because this is a unique position and one that is typically weak because it is rarely, if ever, addressed in the weight room.

In addition, it is common to see a modified horizontal position when the player goes for a tackle around the chest. In this case, the arms are not completely overhead but at about a 45-degree angle to the body. However, the arms are still wide and, as it turns out, in a weak position to be brought together. Because of this, would-be tacklers rarely if ever have the strength needed to forcefully hold the body to complete the tackle. 

For most tacklers, the overhead arms pressing together position is a very weak position because they rarely, if ever, do any exercises to strengthen the muscles of the shoulders and arms for this action. It explains why the ball carrier can easily break the hold. The ball carrier is in a strong arm position while the tackler is in a weak arm position.  

Another reason for many missed tackles appears to be a weak grip or, more specifically, weak finger strength. You can see the tackler grabbing some part of the runner’s clothing but unable to maintain his grip as the runner pulls away. In many cases, the would-be tackler may have good grip strength but is unable to grasp a full fistful of clothing or the ball carrier’s body part.  

In these situations, the tackler must rely on a full range of motion with hand and individual finger grip strength. This is often lacking, especially of the index and middle fingers. To be most successful, it is necessary that the tackler have sufficient full range of motion strength in each of his fingers so that he can be successful in attaining a solid grip to bring down or at least slow down the runner. 

An increasing number of missed tackles are also seen in what I call the hugging tackle. This is seen most often with linemen but it is not unique to them. In this type of tackle, the tackler attempts to wrap his arms around his opponents chest rather than around the hips or below. Such a tackle can be successful if both parties are standing and very close to one another. 

But when you try to tackle up this high, and your feet are about six feet away from the ball carrier, he can usually execute a twisting or turning action to elude the tackle. Keep in mind that the ability to hit the opponent dead center rarely occurs. Often, initial contact is made on one side of the chest so that you do not apply the same force with both arms around the chest. As a result, the tackler cannot get a firm grasp around the chest as the body is turning and the ball carrier eludes the tackle.

In part II, I will include specific exercises to improve the different types of tackles.
About the Author:  Dr. Michael Yessis is President of Sports Training, Inc., a diverse sports and fitness company. He is also Professor Emeritus at California State University, Fullerton. The author of 16 books, Dr. Yessis has been a training and technique consultant to several Olympic and professional sports teams. His web site is and he can be reached at his email address: [email protected]

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