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Give ‘em the Cold Shoulder: The Role of Shoulder Tackle in Youth Football

By Mike Lemons, 01/17/22, 7:30AM CST


When we see football players in their football gear, what are the biggest pads on their bodies?

The shoulder pads.

They protrude beyond the players’ shoulders, hefty and layered in hard plastics and shock-absorbing technology. Which is one of the reasons why we work with our coaches and players on proper “shoulder tackling.”

Before we get into the details of shoulder tackling it’s worth noting that keeping our young football players as safe as possible is a top priority for the Saints and other football programs. After all the game of football is comprised of bodily contact so we take a multi-faceted approach to player safety:

  • Coaching proper techniques
  • Player conditioning
  • League rules governing safer play
  • Proper-fitting, certified equipment

We sat down with John Chevalier, head coach of the Neuqua Valley High School rugby team and former longtime St. Raphael Football coach, to discuss this tackling methodology he’s helped introduce to youth football.

John, what is the shoulder tackle?

John: The shoulder tackle, otherwise known as the “Rugby” tackle is an effective and easily executed tackle that takes the head away from contact. Emphasis is on the use of the shoulder at point of contact, a low athletic body position combined with foot/leg work to leverage and drive the ball carrier to the ground. Taking the head away from the point of contact logically reduces the risk of head injury to the tackler and requirement of the tackler to wrap the ball carrier with the arms means that tackles, while impactful and effective, are executed under control which in turn logically minimizes potential for injury to the ball carrier as well. These logical assertions are supported by clinical research.

So, is this a rugby technique or a football technique?

John: It’s both. Rugby players do not wear helmets so naturally players do not lead with their heads when tackling. Players must use their shoulders as part of the tackle, and there are very stiff penalties assessed during games for dangerous play. While (American) football and rugby are different games they are similar in the need to tackle another player, so the physics are the same. Take the broadest, sturdiest part of the body, the shoulders. Transfer energy from the largest muscles in the body, the quadriceps, and use those muscles to drive the shoulders through the target.

On the topic of body impact, are there areas of the body better suited to take the impact of a tackle over other areas?

John: For sure. Generally, the lower trunk area, around the hips, are where players should be tackling their opponent. Targeting this area has an added benefit of being more effective since ball carriers can move their head, arms, and legs freely to disguise (“juke”) a defender as to where they’re going. But the hips indicate the true direction of the ball carrier. When players see the benefit and safer place to tackle on the body then the next progression is to illustrate what the proper tackle looks like.

What do you want players and parents to know about the role of shoulder tackling?

John: To be sure, football is a contact sport and there is always an inherent risk of injury as in any sport, contact or not. When played to the letter and within the spirit of the rules, combined with well-conceived and executed teaching methodologies, the risk of injury is minimized.

-John Chevalier & Mike Lemons

BONUS: The above blog contains excerpts from John’s “Naperville Saints Football Tackling Program Guide.” If you’d like a full copy of the guide, please contact John Chevalier or Mike Lemons for a free copy!