Create Space in Football Drills

By Andy Ryland

All coaches want practice work to transfer to the game. It is a long held coach-ism that, “If you don’t see your drills on the film, you are doing the wrong drills.” What this tends to lead to is a move toward specificity.

Specificity in itself is not a bad thing, so coaches try to recreate specific game situations via drill work. I argued in the VDA article that this is not the best way to prepare athletes because it lacks all context and chaos of the game. There is no VDA or choice to be made. It becomes rote memorization and predetermined moves.

What we are left with is the same question: How do we train? As coaches, the ultimate goal is not actually specificity but transfer. Obviously, team-oriented periods such as scrimmages, offense vs. defense periods and team 7-on-7 provide both specificity and transfer as they are competitive, chaotic environments.

So, what about drills?

Let’s start by using some simple examples of individual movement skills to illustrate this point. Wicket runs are popular with track coaches, who use mini-hurdles as a constraint within the drill to force athletes into the body positions and running techniques coaches desire.

Instead of telling them, they let the environment shape them. With the hurdles, athletes are forced to concentrate on knee drive to clear the foot over the hurdle. The hurdle also enforces frontside mechanics because a long leg backswing could clip the hurdle behind them. This forces good heel recovery.

A second, more accentuated example is the shoulder level or overhead stick run, which is gaining popularity. Different from acceleration, top-end speed requires a more upright torso. Holding the stick in a squat position above the head reinforces this upright posture – and the stick’s movement also provides great feedback to the coach.

This stick’s position challenges the core and posture because of the longer lever, lack of using arms to counter balance and the need to fight rotation and undulation. This is certainly not specific. In all running, we want great arm action, especially at top-end speed. Who has their arms overhead? Nobody. Again, the goal is transfer, so the drill may not look specific, but the constraints forces adaptations that are transferable.

Back to football drills. After speaking with tackling expert Richie Gray and seeing some of his drills, Wagner University coach Vincent DiGaetano noticed a common flaw on his tape. DiGaetano was trying to keep his players with their feet in the ground and driving through the ball-carrier on a thigh level tackle. Because of contact rules and smart practice planning he came up with this gem.

In the Swoop and Drive Drill, a bag is placed on the ground. The defenders swoop to track then engage the bag with their hands, driving it for four or five hard steps. Specificity? It looks a bit odd. In a tackle, we would engage with the shoulder and clamp the arms. Here, the arms are locked out and pushing.

Now, look at the drill below and notice the shoulder height. This mimics the thigh level tackle.
  • Look at the spine angle from shoulder to hips. This is teaching players to find and own this needed position to complete the skill well.
  • Look at the balance. This drill is forcing the elongated body position of a thigh level tackle but requires keeping the center of gravity, feet and hips in great position to hold the position and run through the tackle.

The constraints of this drill quickly beat players who are out of balance. They either lose their feet and look like Superman (weight back and loss of feet) or go over the bag (too much weight forward … all power, no control).

While at a video shoot in January with TackleTube – videos to be coming soon – I shamelessly stole this idea and introduced players to a drill I named “Mow the Lawn.” The idea is to drive the tube across the grass to mimic body positions and continue driving while in that thigh level body position.

These two drills are great ways to change the constraints of a drill to produce an outcome that will transfer to technique. This concept is key to creating and training decision making in your athletes. Always remember, we want transfer, not just specificity.

To challenge and therefore grow processing and decision-making skills, coaches often need to stretch the athletes. The three most common and easiest to use stressors are: space, time and numbers. All three of these things can easily be changed to create different constraints that challenge the athlete.


We know space has a drastic effect on the game. How often do people talk about the challenge of being deep in the Red Zone and the compression of a defense, limiting route combinations and shrinking windows?

How do we apply this to larger group periods or tactical training instead of just individual skills? Going back to the above idea, smaller fields within a group period can do wonders for changing the demands and focusing on new challenges or certain aspects of the game.

Have you even thought about blocking off parts of the field?

Let’s say you are going into a game, and you don’t want to attack the middle of the field. Maybe your opponent has a great middle linebacker. Maybe you think your advantage is on the outside.

So, what if you made constraints to maximize this in training?

In the below example, we created an “Incomplete Zone” running the length of the field between the goal posts. Any pass caught in that space does not count as a completion. The drills still allow receivers to run through the zone and defenders to work in and through the zone, crossing sides of the field, but to be a completion, the ball must be caught outside of this zone. This now makes the receivers and quarterbacks think and react very differently against a scout team that may not provide the same challenge as a gameday opponent.

In addition to the gameplan aspect, think about the VDA aspect when used in general training. On any crossing route, the window between the strongside defender and the Incomplete Zone is much smaller because you have to make the completion before entering the Incomplete Zone. Coming out of the zone, the ball must be accurate, quick and well-timed because the ball must be in the small window preceding the weakside defender.

This will truly test mental processing abilities. Quarterbacks make the read and find an open teammate, but they also must see the Incomplete Zone. Finding the windows and reacting quickly becomes a needed skill. By putting constraints on the drill, we have created a form of football that is not specific but enhances reading, reaction, mental processing and decision making all while giving a creative coach an incredible number of options of what to stress, what to take away and how he wants to make players think and act.

You can also use Double Point Zones where catches in a particular area are worth double. In the example below, this zone is outside the numbers. You may use this for defense if you are playing a team that does a great job attacking outside. To help incentivize your scout team or when going good-on-good, throw the ball out there and attack this area, then give double points for every completion in the zone – i.e., 1 point to the offense now equals 2.

It also works for an offense as a change of pace or to challenge the quarterback and receivers by “changing the game” and forcing them to react and be precise in their routes, delivery and thought process. This extra decision, or at least the threat or benefit of those decisions, forces an extra choice and enhances the ability to process information.

Andy Ryland is USA Football’s senior manager of education and training. A former Penn State linebacker, college football coach and member of the U.S. men’s rugby team, with USA Football, Ryland helped develop the organization’s American Development ModelHeads Up Football and Master Trainer programs.