Most traditional football drills are “blocked drills.”

By Andy Ryland

Fundamentals. The key building blocks of football, the core of each football play and how most coaches should see the game. The ability for players to perfect and execute skills on game day separates highly successful teams from a just another group of “athletes.”

A mentor of mine introduced me to the Vision-Decision-Action (VDA) cycle. This is a practice I have long employed, but I had never named it or cataloged it until VDA. I just knew that most traditional football drills lacked the decision-making component of the game itself and was always trying to train decision making in my athletes.

Most traditional football drills are “blocked drills.”

  • Run to this line and make this cut.
  • Run to X cone and do Y skill.
  • Run to bag 1 and do skill 2.

Easy for setup, but do we get the transfer we need for sport?

Let’s look at the role the VDA cycle plays in what may be perceived as a predesignated football action.

If we were to look at a blitzing linebacker attacking the B gap, his path and role is predetermined, but the execution of this task has a huge VDA cycle to be successful. As the linebacker approaches the gap, he must see, process and react in the appropriate manner to use a pass rush move and be successful. Depending on the offensive blocking scheme, the guard might block out into the B gap, or the tackle could block down into the B gap. On the run, the linebacker must recognize this and then identify which side he is being blocked from? This will determine which side the pass rush move is initiated from.

Which foot? Which hand? What moves first?

On the run, the linebacker could see the blocking scheme and realize that the running back is assigned to him. The back could be approaching from either side of the formation and could be trying to block half-a-man or trying to square him up. In all cases, the correct pass rush moves and where to initiate it from is dependent on the offenses reaction to his blitz, but he must process this intuitively and quickly while moving.

So the question is: Is simply drilling one move to a predetermined side vs. a predetermined opponent with a predetermined reaction without any vision, decision and action choice the best way to prepare athletes for games? How do we prepare to be great decision makers before skill executers? How do we prepare for chaos and to become playmakers?

Before we throw out all of our drills, or because we know the start-stop nature of football can be hard to coach via small-sided games, let’s look at some simple ways to introduce these concepts and add variability into some classic drills:

Competitive non-contact

Less a drill than a philosophy, coaches need to work to competitive drills as quickly as possible. That said, these can still be non-contact drills. USA Football and the Shoulder Tackle system does teach a sizable number of blocked drills. I find these useful for teaching “movement parameters,” what the coach wants the movement to look like – especially important with contact skills due to safety teaching points. That said, we want to move to chaos and reaction as quickly as possible. Drills where you encourage the opponent to win via movement not collision and give them freedom of movement are much preferred to “jog to that cone.”

Almost every drill for any position group can be turned into competitive tag, a long-lost art in physical development. We have all seen defensive backs cover the route perfectly when they know it’s coming. You drill the footwork to drive on a slant only to see the same player stagger in the game. When drilling, most offensive linemen take the perfect steps but game film against a competitive opponent in an unsure situation brings out substantial number of footwork issues and late reactions.

Start about …

This is a great tool that I started using for almost all of my tracking and leverage drills. I stopped using lines and cones. I go so far as to not even say “start around 5-yards,” but say “start around … there,” and I say it to each player, every rep with a different length of pause and a different direction pointed sometimes.

The goal is to create “repetition without repetition.” I want the distance and angle to be slightly different (micro-variance) on each rep so that players are reacting to a different stimulus every time not simply starting 5-by-5 and tracking/leveraging and opponent to the cone. Below are a few examples visual examples of 2-man Rabbit, a leverage drills done the traditional and chaotic way.

Traditional:  BC = ball-carrier, D# = Defensive players

Insert Traditional graphic

Chaotic, 3 different reps all unplanned, coaches creates random conflict via alignment:

If the drill calls for a box, I often tell the ball-carrier to line up wherever he chooses on his line. His natural change of starting positions will give each rep a slightly different feel.

Multiple Choice, Multi-Skills

A wonderful way to prepare for the game is to stack drills that utilize simple either/or option but pair each option with a different skill. Instead of simply choosing right or left, think of pairing near/far and with an appropriate skill for if the opponent was at the different distance. Now, not only will the player have to react to a visual stimulus to know where to go, but when they get there, what will they do? What skill will they use to “win” the play? This type of drill setup best represents game action and works for application of skills via the VDA.

Here is a quick example of one of my favorites. Set up a traditional tackle drill with a tackler (T) and a blocker (B) but use two different tackle bags behind the blocker. Place one on a tight angle and one at an extreme angle from the blocker. The coach (C) positions himself between the two bags. Once the tackler controls the blocker and snaps his eyes to the coach, the coach will point to one of the two bags. The player must release the block, track appropriately to the signaled bag and make the appropriate tackle. The tight angle bag gives him the opportunity for a perfect form tackle. The wide-angle bag simulates that he is being out-leveraged, is in a chase position and will most likely make a roll tackle. Pair the skills with the direction, that comes from a visual stimulus and check if technique remains perfect.

Insert TT graphic

To progress this drill, and I try to get here as soon as possible, have a teammate stand behind the tight angle bag and run to and tag one of the bags. Now, the tackler is reading the path of the supposed ball-carrier instead of looking to the coach for a more realistic visual stimulus.

(Note: I do use the coach-controlled version to teach the drill first.)

Takeaway

After players know what you want and can show the skill done safely in a controlled environment, try to progress to more game applicable versions as quickly as possible. Game speed and game specific does not always have to mean with collision.

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 Model, Heads Up Football and Master Trainer programs.

About the author

Dan Guttenplan