Opinion: The way to player safety is through teaching

More news about: Washington U.
Limited offseason and preseason practice time just got even more limited across Division III. Coaches are pushing back.
Photo by James Byard, WUSTL photos


By Larry Kindbom
Head Football Coach
Washington University in St. Louis

As the chair of the AFCA’s Division III Football Council, I felt it was important to promote the outstanding football coaches we have in our division and what they mean to our game of football. We are blessed to have coaches who place a premium on those that they coach. They care about the welfare of their players. Our Division III coaches take great pride in their teaching, and helping those they coach move to the next levels of their lives. Moreover, many of these coaches chose to coach in Division III because of the opportunity they have to make major differences in the lives of their players.


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I felt it was important to take a step back and review some of the recent legislation that is presently being reviewed by the NCAA and football community at our level. We are trying to understand the principles behind the reduction of practices, especially taking away the second practice that was afforded to the division during the preseason time. As we read the purpose of such a move, we can see the relationship that is drawn between injuries and number of practices in which the players participate. The resulting conclusion is that “safety of the players” is the ultimate emphasis of the decision. Having a second practice in a day stresses an already tired athlete, hence more opportunity to get injured. Moreover, with fewer practices come fewer opportunities to be injured.

I appreciate what appears to be a logical conclusion. After all, fewer practices does allow fewer opportunities to have players get injured. However, I would like all of us to think about safety in a different light. Football is a tough game, and to the bystander, it appears to be chaotic and dangerous. I can see why some of those that are trying to understand parts of this game struggle with the contact and collisions that occur.

As a coach, I teach my players to understand that this is a game that needs to be played with great discipline. It is a physical game to be sure, and the players who step on the field need to respect the nature of the game. Coaches teach that respect to be gained through constant drilling of techniques against as many different backdrops as possible. As safety is first, the coach emphasizes this concern with every movement that occurs on the field. We study great amounts of film, so our coaches can teach better and our players can play better, and safer. Our goals include eliminating that chaos that others feel, and promoting the intentionality of good technique.

To make our game safer, many people are rallying behind the thought of practicing less. This is far from the truth. Each practice opportunity is an opportunity to teach our players to block better, to tackle properly, and to play with speed in a game where awareness is created best through repetition. As a coach, I need time with our players to do that. Most coaches teach tackling in a confined space. Proper tackling is important not only to the tackler, who needs to use proper technique; it is important for the person who is tackled. He needs to learn to fall safely, and absorb the hit.

Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com

To an outsider, there is this great picture of people running all over the field, and there is wild and vicious contact in tackling and blocking where players are jeopardizing their health. Coaches teach tackling in a progression and in great detail to the footwork, contact point, arm drive, and bringing someone to the ground. In a well-controlled environment, players learn how to properly execute the movement. Hundreds of repetitions are needed (no, I am not exaggerating) before the player is ready to go to the next step. Eliminating opportunities to practice takes away from the proper teaching. We play a game of fundamentals. Could you imagine a pole vaulter only getting a few repetitions before trying to clear a bar at 12 feet, where the slightest miss would send him or her sprawling to a concrete enclosure outside the landing pit? We would not expect a skier to go down a steep hill without practicing several times in how to fall or how to appropriately stop. If we do not teach our players how to tackle and block, we risk our players missing their marks as well. Reduction of opportunity does not breed safety.

It can be argued that less training may ultimately lead to more risk. Players need to be trained to go through the football movements again and again. The game should reflect the progress and subsequent execution of what is practiced. Several people argue that players should wear pads only once a week. Makes sense, right? Less hitting, fewer injuries. Like many colleges, we have science labs in the afternoon that conflict with practice. If a player misses practice on Tuesday because of a biomedical engineering lab, do we not let that player play because he could not hit during the week?

We hire coaches to teach our student-athletes. Their responsibility is to know their players well enough to know when they must push forward through being tired. Having one bold, generalized rule for every program in the country is not necessarily always the best solution. Conducting a second practice in a day may actually be better for an athlete to acclimate him to the course of what he will see in a ball game. In other situations, giving a player a day off, even when he has a practice opportunity, is the best course. Coaches at the college level can discern those situations often better than others. The coaches know the players. For example, we are allowed to have three hours for practice. Utilizing a three-hour practice in the heat and humidity of St. Louis in August is not good.  As a coach, it is my responsibility to the players to not go three hours in that situation.

We appreciate your efforts to protect the very young people we coach. The awareness of injuries, especially concussions, has made us rethink the way we coach. We are more intentional in our teaching and evaluation. Research has indeed helped us become better coaches. No coach would want to endanger his players with too many dangerous hits. We need to practice the techniques and movements using the knowledge we have accrued. We hope you will allow us the teaching options to teach.  

Larry Kindbom has been the head football coach at Washington University in St. Louis since 1989 and has won 202 games as a head coach, all of them at the NCAA Division III level.

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