A look at a new coaching programme that aims to improve players’ tackling technique and reduce the risk of concussion
Concussion and rugby. The two have become synonymous in recent months with rarely a week passing without the issue making the back pages. In December it was the George North head injury dominating the rugby news, this month Munster scrum-half Conor Murray, and the Six Nations is likely to bring more cases of players being knocked unconscious.
Last week the Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project (PRISP) published its annual report into the incidence of match-day injuries in professional rugby. First the good news: the number of match-day injuries are at their lowest since the study began in 2002. Now the bad news: concussion injuries have increased for the fifth consecutive season and now account for a quarter of all match-day injuries, a rise from 17% the previous year.
Of course, one reason concussion cases have risen is that players are much more aware of the issue and what might a few years ago have been dismissed as a ‘slight bang on the head, you’ll be right as rain in a couple of days’ is now treated with due diligence.
The Immediate Care in Sport programme has been educating coaches, officials and healthcare providers in recognising and treating concussion, but that is only half the education battle in the fight to reduce the number of concussion cases in the game, from grass roots to the top flight.
As Simon Kemp, the RFU chief medical officer, told the BBC last week: “Thinking about tackle technique and ensuring tackle technique is performance-optimised while reducing the risk of head contact to the tackler, is something the game needs to work more on.”
Which is were Ricky Whitehall comes in. A former hooker for England U18 and England Students, Whitehall turned professional with Coventry and then spent seven seasons playing for Lille in the French Fédérale 1 while also becoming a qualified coach.
Last summer he returned to England to become boss of Midlands One West club Burton, coaching not just the 1st XV squad but also the kids’ section. “When I began coaching at Burton I found that parents were increasingly concerned about the physicality of rugby,” explains Whitehall. “And I understand that concern because I’ve been a dad for 18 months and if my daughter wants to play rugby I’d be worried about the long-term effects on her.”
Whitehall believes that the RFU’s Head Case campaign has done some good work, and this month’s World Rugby edict about refereeing the tackle area is also a step in the right direction. But he says too many players in the modern game can’t tackle properly, reeling off the names of high-profile players who in the past couple of seasons have been knocked unconscious because of poor tackling technique.
“I think part of the problem is down to complacency,” explains Whitehall. “Players in the professional game today are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, but can they tackle better than their predecessor? From my own experience there isn’t enough emphasis on teaching players the correct tackle technique and it doesn’t matter how big or strong a player is, if he can’t tackle properly he’s probably going to get hurt at some stage.”
Together with Jason Allen, Whitehall has developed a rugby tackle programme called 360 Coaching that they have just launched. “The programme is applicable from under-nines all the way up to international level,” explains Whitehall. “We’re in the process of speaking to Premiership clubs about providing specialist sessions for the contact area and carrying out studies on the reduction of injury and concussion through the programme’s application.”
Whitehall uses a boxing analogy to make his point, saying that a boxer wouldn’t be sent into the ring knowing how to throw a punch but not avoid one. So rugby players need to be educated in how to score tries and how to stop them.
“It’s taken several months to develop the programme because we’ve broken the tackle process step by step,” explains Whitehall.
“We’ve identified certain factors and stimuli involved in making a tackle, demonstrating that it’s a very technical skill and not, as you often see, just a case of plucking up your courage, closing your eyes, and hoping for the best as you run in to make the tackle. Ultimately we want to empower players so that they are confident they can make the tackle and see it not as something to be scared of but a vital part of the game.”
As far as kids are concerned, the programme is fun, as well as educational, starting with gentle games of touch with the children being shown where to put their hands when they make a tackle. Gradually the programme introduces the kids to contact. “But all the while everything is done in a safe environment,” explains Whitehall. “If a kid has their head in the wrong place we’ll stop the game and ask the children what was wrong about that and why. We want them to teach each other.”
Once the kids have learnt the basic principles of tackling, they are taught about more offensive tackling and how to enter a ruck, with the emphasis always on thinking about the correct technique. “We want to reduce the concussion in the game and boost the participation by taking the fear factor away from kids and also their parents,” explains Whitehall. “The best thing I’ve heard so far was a parent who told me his son used to run alongside the ball-carrier too scared to tackle but now he’s his side’s leading tackler.”
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