By Simon Hatcher
I am currently lucky enough to be the Linebackers coach for GB Student team, and Defensive coordinator for University of Hertfordshire Hurricanes.
Firstly I will mention a resource I have found invaluable. Complete Linebacking by Lou Tepper is the bible for linebacker play, and the reason I am going to take a different approach to this article. There is no point in me covering something that is done so much better in an easily available book. What I would like to do is translate a few things I have learned about coaching players in the UK, and coaching players from scratch. A lot of this applies to all positions, but I was focusing on Linebackers whilst writing this article.
The Ideal Linebacker
Almost every book or article starts with a section on the ideal size/speed of a Linebackers. An example might be “The ideal Sam linebacker is tall, preferably 6’4” or taller,…..”. I am convinced that this is lead by the editors, so I am going to buck that trend. I do not care what size, shape, or speed a player is. The ability to do the job is the key, and a determination to get better. Of course some of these traits help a player perform the job, however sometimes these skills will not translate on the field. Coaches do the players a disservice if they do not watch film of practise/games and analyse who is performing their role and who “looks the part”, sometimes they are very different.
This is something I am obsessive about. Picture this (excuse the pun)– a coach who played linebacker a while ago, who is getting a little less flexible with age, and demonstrates a stance whilst using hands to indicate key areas. All the Linebackers copy that stance, and the coach is not sure why everyone is a little high, the arch in the back is not ideal and the hands are all over the place. We are great visual learners (even if not our primary style), so I strongly advise either use one of your players (who you feel has good stance/technique) or use a photo and/or film. If you don’t have classroom find solutions – print out a photo/ or take an ipad on the field and show the picture.
I cannot stress this enough, start your players right with a good picture. This was really demonstrated to me clearly when tutoring Level 1 courses. When doing the assessments, if you started with a good coach demonstration, everyone would improve from that point, if during the demo a component was not demonstrated as well as you would like, it reflected in everyone’s presentation. This not only translates to good stances, tackling technique and blocking, but showing a well run scheme or blitz on film, is often a light bulb moment for someone you have been struggling with corrections, and wondering why they don’t see it.
We all complain about not having enough practise time, so we need to understand and focus on what is important. To improve on anything you need to get a lot of repetitions (an eye watering 10,000 hours to become expert if you listen to Zach Hambrick). So every drill should be carefully considered, and every opportunity taken to maximise a drill (an example of this would be where possible finish with a form tackle, I am not talking about a half hearted throw the arms in the air after finishing a drill but a solid perfect form tackle to improve the muscle memory).
Tackling has to be the No.1 priority for a linebacker (all defensive players?); if we don’t tackle at every practice I feel we have fallen behind. It is important we don’t practice queuing and subsequently lose repetitions. By this I mean make sure your drill groups are small enough to give recovery between reps, but not have players waiting. If your coaching staff is also small adapt drills. You can have 3 tackling drills set up and clearly indicate what is required for each one. Then a single active coach can manage this. You don’t need to coach setting up (and invariable adjusting chin strap and putting in gum shield), or untangling the tackle, so move between each station briskly with a clear start and stop, give coaching point and then move onto next station. It is amazing how your reps can be increased. Having the same drills every practise also saves time explaining what you are looking for, and these drill can evolve without spending a valuable 5 minutes explaining a brand new drill. There can be a time when you need to stop and explain something, or refocus the players, but try to avoid this.
Now the real balance is contact versus repetition, very few players will survive past 10 full on tackles, even if they physically survive they will start to shy away or the form will degenerate, both of these issues we want to avoid. But we will not get better with only 10 reps, so break it down, shorten the distances for contact, control the contact, separate approach into a different drill and finish drills that involve greater distances (and velocity) by tackling a bag rather than a man.
Look at Coach Bobby Hosea tackling drills on youtube, again he is a great resource which I would rather you use than I rehash in this article.
The last thing I will say about repetitions, is that I did an excel spreadsheet for our coaching staff, very basically a cell for every practice we have for the season, and the total at the end. This beautifully demonstrated the difference in the final total every time we added one more rep to each practice (or lost a rep each practice). When looked at this across a season, it really focuses the mind on how the valuable time should not be wasted on waiting for helmets to be buckled up or on war stories.