No more ‘Code Red’

Monday, June 27, 2011

By Peter Schwab
AFL Director of Coaching

In the 1980s Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans devised a strategy for one of the Grand Finals he coached titled "Operation Tackle". It was a focus that centered on tackling fiercely and often would, if executed well, help us win the match.

By comparison to today's high tackling counts, we were well below the average AFL team's weekly tackle tally.

What it points out though is that tackling has always been an integral part of the game. Jeans' view of the objective of a tackle was to dispossess or minimise the use of the ball of the player in possession.

He didn't advocate hurting an opponent in a tackle, but he did ask us to tackle fiercely, and he recognised that tackling could be a legal way of hurting an opponent.

When I coached, I encouraged taking your opponent to the ground in a tackle if you could as it would take him out of any on-going involvement in the contest. I also wanted the tackles to be hard. Did I ever say hurt them if you could when tackling? The answer is yes. Goddamn right I ordered the "Code Red".

In light of my involvement in junior football, it just points out that we are continually faced with the dilemma of professional sport tactics not being compatible with junior sport.

I cringe now when I recall asking players to hurt an opponent when tackling ahead of simply emphasising the Jeans objective of dispossessing or minimising their use in possession.

Playing sport should not be about hurting someone deliberately, but I accept tackling is a part of many contact sports and by its very nature, it is a physical act which can on occasions hurt someone whether we mean to or not.

The past week at AFL level again highlighted the issue of tackling with several players reported and suspended for tackling with too much force or tackling dangerously, mainly by sling tackles where an opponent's head is prone to be smashed into the ground.

They may not have meant to cause injury, but the sling tackle by its very nature is dangerous, more so when a bigger opponent does the tackling.

Every sport where tackling is allowed has rightly outlawed the spear tackle because of its potential to cause serious injury.

So any rationale about tackling needs to make sure that the tackle does not have the potential to cause injury, be it a spear tackle, a sling tackle or a tackle with excessive, unnecessary and or unreasonable force.

Personally, I don't think assessments of tackles along these lines is difficult to adjudicate, nor do I think by eliminating these types of tackles do we in any way diminish the physicality of our game.

In fact, the modern AFL game has never been as physical as it is now. This is mainly because of the numbers around the contest, the speed, strength and size of the players and the tactical emphasis on physical pressure.

Under the AFL's match day policy, which outlines recommendations for how the game should be conducted between the ages of five and 18, there is a gradual approach to tackling.

It is recommended that tackling not be permitted at all up until the age of eight. At nine and 10, a hold and release approach is recommended. Bumping, slinging or deliberately bringing a player to ground or grabbing the arms and applying a wrap tackle are prohibited.

From 11 to 12, a wrap around tackle is permitted and from 13 onwards, the laws of Australian Football are applied.

The reason for a staggered approach to this skill of the game is so players who are learning can develop and improve their disposal skills first by reducing pressure on them in possession. Players can also learn to develop evasive skills such as dodging and turning and can be free to concentrate on the ball.

Most children learning the game will be confident to try and gain possession when in a non-pressure environment.

The critical aspect once tackling starts being introduced is to teach players the correct technique. There are several tackling drills which can be used. Allowing the players to first walk through the drill before gradually increasing the speed at which the tackle is applied.

Players should also be shown how to absorb the tackle pressure by bracing themselves, pushing into the tackler and learning how to fall and roll to avoid a possible injury.

But we cannot accept tackling at any level that has the potential to unnecessarily increase the injury risk to players, particularly at junior levels.

As a game, we also cannot accept the concept of hurting someone legally, and believe me, that position has nothing to do with taking the physicality out of our game.

Download contact skills guide including bumping, shepherding and tackling.

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