Ivy coaches vote to eliminate tackling in season practices

by Sonia Qin | 3/7/16 7:49pm

In 2010, Dartmouth eliminated all tackling from its practices to reduce injuries.
by Tiffany Zhai / The Dartmouth

All eight Ivy League coaches recently voted to eliminate full-contact hitting from their regular season practices at the annual coaches’ meeting two weeks ago. The unanimous decision will now go to each the league’s athletic directors, policy committee and university presidents for approval before the policy goes into affect.

Implementation potentially may begin by the 2016 preseason, Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens ’79 said.

In 2010, Teevens eliminated all full-contact hitting in practices to reduce injuries including concussions.

Teevens said that the non-tackling training regimen has produced a lot of success on the field coupled with a decline in concussive head injuries and injuries in general.

Teevens proposed moving to eliminate live tackling from the regular season at the Ivy League coaches’ meeting, a suggestion he said took only five minutes of discussion before a unanimous decision was reached.

Last year, Thayer School of Engineering students Elliot Kastner ’13 and Quinn Connell ’13 unveiled the Mobile Virtual Player. The Big Green has used the robotic dummy in practice since August.

The Ivy League’s decision creates a good forum for introducing the MVP on a larger scale, Connell said.

“As the MVP is a tool that’s designed to mitigate the risk that players are facing, our interests and goals are aligned with the same ones that prompted this decision,” Connell said.

Both Kastner and Connell said that they have expanded their product to other high-contact sports including rugby, lacrosse and hockey.

Kastner, a former Dartmouth football player, said that the shift away from live tackling will allow other schools to imitate Teevens’ form-oriented coaching methodology.

“More and more we start to recognize that every player is valuable,” Kastner said. “We want every player to have a safe career and have a safe and fulfilling life after.”

Connell, who played rugby at Dartmouth, said that in the past, changes to protect players have been incremental but have been gaining more traction with the introduction of more rules.

Teevens said the MVP differs from the other objects that players tackle as it provides them with a moving target.

“You can use it at any position, you can hit it two, three hundred times a day and it just bounces,” he said. “It never gets hurt, it never sprains its ankle, never gets a concussion.”

Teevens said that not only does tackling the MVP produce the same results as live tackling, but it also allows the players to hit with a plan.

Other Ivy League teams, including Harvard University’s and Columbia University’s, will continue to allow live tackling and scrimmaging in spring football and in preseason, according to both teams’ coaches.

“I think conferences as a group could [eliminate tackling], I don’t think coaches individually could,” Teevens said. “The pressure to win at the higher level is so great that if you did it and you didn’t have success, you would be unemployed.”

He added that this type of initiative is crucial to the continuation of the sport.

“If we don’t change the way we coach the game, we won’t have a game to coach,” he said.

Teevens said that a reduction in live contact signifies a reduction in concussive head injuries, something he hopes will spread to other college programs and eventually high schools.

Teevens said that, currently, the Dartmouth football team tackles many inanimate objects like the MVP to develop the skillset, which they can use in a real game.

“We do tackle, we just don’t tackle each other,” he said. “The truth is, my guys will tackle 10 times per year, 40 times during their career, on game day and that’s it.”

Teevens said that there is a lot of antiquated thinking in the coaching profession, but now the game has changed in terms of technology, size, speed, strength, nutrition and diagnostic capabilities. It is important to keep up with these other changing factors, he said.

Winning the Ivy League Championship this year is evidence that Dartmouth’s training regimen has not hurt the team’s performance, Teevens said.

Harvard football coach Tim Murphy said the obvious motivation in the decision was to “find as many ways as possible to mitigate the safety risks in football.”

Murphy said that the new rule will not necessarily present a big transition for Harvard’s football team, as for the past 15 years they have not been live tackling or scrimmaging during the season.

“This seems like sort of a precedent-setting situation, which it is, in terms of a league making a decision unilaterally to really be proactive about player safety,” Murphy said. “However, for a lot of us, this is something we’ve done for a long, long time.”

Murphy said that it is good for the public to understand that their foremost priority is the health and welfare of athletes.

“The future has never been brighter for football,” Murphy said. “In terms of the culture, rules, practice regimens and overall sports medicine it’s a much safer game now.”

Columbia football coach Al Bagnoli said coaches gave a lot of thought to this unanimous decision, which came from a desire to improve the game by making it safer.

Bagnoli said that he hopes that the decision will serve as a template for other schools to follow. He does not expect Columbia football practices to change significantly, but anticipates a number of small adjustments.

Both Murphy and Bagnoli said that their teams might begin using the MVP as well.

Murphy said that the prototype is “very impressive” and has a lot of potential.

Bagnoli said the robot is “pretty intriguing” and is a “forward-thinking way to go about practicing your craft.”

This articlehas been updated to reflect the following correction:Correction appended March 8:Originally, this post stated the policy needed approval before it goes into affect. It has been updated to say the policy needs approval before it goes into effect.