Subtle Difference Between Head-Up and Head-Down Tackling

Image result for head down vs head up tackling

Allow me to set the scene, I have been working Collegiate Football for a bit now and the other morning, before the sun had risen, I was covering a practice. There I was with my water bottles watching the Defense work on a tackling drill, and I was amazed how subtle a difference it is between the ideal head-up and the horrible head-down tackling style.Image result for head down tackling

The importance of the drill is vital. A head-down tackle, or spear tackling by its more common moniker, lines up everything perfectly for a world of pain and hurt for the athlete and is the leading reason why the sport of Football experienced a major change in tackling rules in 1976 (Heck et al, 2004).  The following excerpt is from the 2004 Position Statement by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association addressing the issue with Head-Down Tackling:

“Axial loading of the cervical spine resulting from head-down contact is the primary cause of spinal cord injuries. Keeping the head up and initiating contact with the shoulder or chest decreases the risk of these injuries.”

But think about the popularity being built around spear tackling through things such as professional wrestling:

Image result for spear tackle gif

Or, what about spear tackling in Rugby?

Image result for spear tackle gif

Well, that also lends itself to the discussion on the issue in American Football. In previous blogs we have discussed just how wearing equipment can give an athlete a false sense of security against injury and how those athletes then tend to adopt dangerous behaviors that predispose them to catastrophic injury. American Football, unlike Rugby or Professional Wrestling, uses equipment designed to prevent the skull and other portions of the body from being damaged. However, the equipment does not and cannot prevent the axial load from a spear style tackle being transmitted down through the spine and leading to many horrible outcomes, such as quadriplegia (Heck, 2004).

One of the major issues brought to light in the 2004 position statement on tackling was that many officials were not enforcing the rule that had gone into effect in 1976. I know your probably thinking to yourself, this research article came out in 2004 and it is now 2017… working on 2018 for that matter. There is no way this is still an issue in the sport. Well, according to College Sports Scholarship (2017), there was a study conducted by Tulane University and the Louisiana Office of Public Health found some shocking results…

“600 football players from 16 southeastern Louisiana high schools and found that 29 percent thought that using the top of their helmets to tackle was legal, 32 percent thought head-butting an opponent was legal and 35 percent thought it was permissible to barrel over an opponent headfirst.”

You would think that a rule created in 1976 for the sport to prevent major injuries would be a little better well known to the athletes playing the game. Oh, but wait… Maybe that is just the athletes, we all know not all athletes know all the rules… Sadly, there is more, the study also addressed the coaches, and here is what they found:

“Of the coaches at those 16 schools, only two said they’d shown a blocking and tackling safety video distributed free by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, three refused comment, five said they hadn’t had time to show it and six believed showing the tape to their players would curb their aggressiveness.”

That’s right, potentially life-saving sport techniques that have been proven to keep athletes safe and in the game couldn’t be instructed due to a lack of ‘time’ and the fear that it would curb their aggressiveness… Image result for head down tackling

The moral of the story here is that proper technique is vital! Coaches play an important role in teaching proper technique and helping us, as Athletic Trainers, by not letting their athletes conduct dangerous styles of play.

Let me make this statement here, this is not an attack on coaches, but it needs to be said. No coach should ever use an excuse of a lack of time or a fear of curbing the athletes aggressiveness when it comes to the safety of their athletes. If you are a parent, an athlete, or a healthcare practitioner that deals with student athletes, the question should be posed to the coaching staff. If you are a coach you should put in the due diligence to help keep your athlete in the fight and playing the game! After all, the difference may be subtle, but it is an important one!

By: Jeremy D. Howard, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, CES, PES, ITAT


College Sports Scholarships. (2017). Spearing in football. Retrieved from

Heck, J.F., Clarke, K.S., Peterson, T.R., Torg, J.S., and Weis, M.P. (2004). National athletic trainers’ association position statement: Head-down contact and spearing in tackle football. Journal of Athletic Training, 39(1), 101-111.


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