Tackling: The Most Dangerous Part of Soccer

It is my contention that players and coaches need to know about their game -- more than just skills, more then just basic tactics.

Everyone needs to know when to run, when to stop, when to play fast, when to play slow (something UNC men's coach Elmar Bolowich has told me many American players need to learn), when to tackle, when to back up, when to shoot, when to pass.

The players need options and need to be able to use those options so they don't just play like predictable robots. The ability to execute those options is what makes the unpredictability of soccer so attractive and fun to play and watch.

But there are other things that coaches, players and referees need to know and to be aware of, so that such situations of not foreign and can be avoided, if possible. I am talking about injuries here.

Don't you think if a player knew how an injury happened, that player might just be able to avoid that injury when the opportunity presents itself?

OK, pop quiz: What is the most dangerous part of the game? Heading? Running? Tripping? A professional foul? Any ideas?

There have been a number of studies of the mechanisms of various injuries. For example, knee injuries can be from either direct contact or from an awkward misstep while cutting or landing from a jump.

Head injuries can happen while competing for a head ball. For men, head injuries are usually elbow-head contact. For women, it is usually head-head contact. Ankle injuries can be from stepping on another player's foot, or from unequal forces during a tackle.

How about shin injuries? Usually in close quarters while tackling. Foot injuries happen when a player reaches for the ball during a tackle and the opponent steps on that foot. A broken tibia or fibula is from a hard kick to the shin during tackling.

Seeing a pattern here? Got the answer to the pop quiz? Easily, the most dangerous activity in soccer is tackling.

More injuries occur during tackling than during any other activity. Wonder why? Any number of reasons has been mentioned. For example, players with mismatched skills playing against each other could have the better player being cut down by the lesser player.

Some of my worst injuries have happened playing recreational soccer with unskilled, inexperienced players. It could be poor skill. Some people think tackling is something innate in a player; you either are or are not a good tackler.

So, coaches who think this probably spend little time teaching and practicing the skill of tackling. Big mistake.

When I took the U.S. Soccer coaching school (many years ago), team defense and defensive priorities were an important part of the course. As a defender, I took to heart that my hierarchy of defense was:

  1. Cover the player so well that they won't think about passing the ball to the player you are covering.
  2. If a pass is made, step up and intercept the pass.
  3. If an interception can't be made, pressure the player so they can't turn around.
  4. If the player turns, keep the player and the ball, in front of you.
  5. and finally, go for the tackle.

Tackling was the last option. In looking at how a team obtains possession of the ball, tackling is about fourth or fifth on the list. This might give compelling reasons to not teach tackling; low priority, don't get the ball often. But the problem is that tackling is where the bulk of injuries occur.

The top three locations for injuries in soccer are the ankle, knee, and then the shin. Doesn't tackling look like the problem now? It should.

There is one other factor about injuries during tackling. Game videos show that one player, usually with the ball, gets distracted for a split second around the ball, then when the tackle happens, gets hurt. Slow-motion videos show a player taking their eye off the ball when they should be concentrating on the ball.

So, what's a concerned coach to do? While tackling is not something any one player performs frequently during a game, it still is something that should be practiced, practiced, practiced.

In addition, players must be comfortable on the ball to be prepared to take on players with confidence and skill in many situations so they can hopefully learn to concentrate on the ball and not be distracted.

So the more activities where the players have the ball means more opportunity for tackling practice; further reason to justify the use of small-sided games.

Can't start this kind of philosophy too early. Players get better by practice, so practice it.

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