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March 25, 2020

The Football Scientist Interview Series - Rex Norris of Atavus Football

The Football Scientist, Mar. 25th 2020

I have long wondered why it is that football teams don’t have tackling coaches. It is such a central part of the game that it would seem that clubs should directly dedicate coaching resources to this, yet to my knowledge no NFL or college team has ever had a tackling coach (and if anyone has any knowledge of one, please send me a note with more info).

It was that mindset that led me to want to know more about a company called Atavus Football. It isn’t hyperbole to say that Atavus is leading a revolution in tackling. Rex Norris, their vice president of football programming, has taken his multiple decades of coaching football and rugby and turned it into a shoulder-led tackling system that has been successfully utilized by many college programs, including Washington, Ohio State, Michigan State, Rutgers, and Cincinnati.

The state of Texas went so far as to select Atavus to provide mandatory tackling certification to 23,000 Texas high school football coaches. Atavus also works with individual players to help improve tackling performance, a list that includes Seattle Seahawks All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner.

I recently had a chance to talk to Norris about many topics, including how rugby helped develop their tackling system, the process of working with Wagner, what it takes to get player buy-in, and the important side benefits of good tackling.

KC Joyner: So how do you go from being a football coach to working for a company that wants to develop a groundbreaking tackling system?

Rex Norris: You know how you're in the right place at the right time? I was coaching football in the state of Washington and I was also coaching a rugby program. In that rugby program I had boys and girls teams and I was coaching the daughters of the founders of Serevi Rugby [the company that eventually turned into Atavus]. Their parents were talking to me and I brought up the fact that the teaching of rugby applied to the situations of football. About a year later they came and asked me if I was willing to join Atavus and create this pathway for teaching tackling.

I didn’t necessarily know what all that meant, so in the beginning I told them no on two occasions. The third time they asked, they told me I was one of a handful of people that have been coaching rugby and football for 25 years. I didn't know that. The timing was right with my family and my daughter and I made the decision to give it a shot.

How did it develop from there?

For the first six months all I did was travel the country, going to camps, talking to coaches, and doing my own research on teaching motor skill development to find out how do you position your body safely and most effectively for dominant contact?

I put the research in front of people to get their feedback, whether they were medical personnel or in combat sports. We did research on Bruce Lee and Russian boxing and hockey as well as teaching, and basically were able to come up with an idea. That's when we met with Oklahoma and Washington and Ohio State and all of a sudden there was some interest.

Through that interest we created a curriculum that not only helps teach tackling, but also provides resources to teach it, especially if you've been doing something else your whole life. We also teach how to measure tackling and really evaluate what much safer and effective tackling is and create a different level of analysis that drives more focus towards achieving what you want, and that is for your players to play more instinctively and with more confidence.

How does the rugby experience help you?

The game of rugby teaches tackling way better than the game of football teaches tackling. If you tackle wrong in rugby you come out of the game. There are coaches in rugby that know how to teach tackling, but the game itself does a good job of it. You either conform or you stop playing.

What are the main elements when teaching good tackling form?

What we want players to understand when making a tackle is first, am I in a position to knock them backwards? If I’m not in a position to knock them backwards, what should I be doing?

In a lot of programs they teach the same tackle technique whether you're in a position to knock them backwards or not. If I'm not in a position to knock them backwards, I don't need to be focusing on power. I should be just focusing on control. Just get them down, get them on the ground. Well, that's a control thing. That's not a power thing. In that situation, I should be completely focused on how to control the runner. The techniques that players use now often don't help in that situation.

What we've done is we've broken it down into four basic situations. There are two situations where you're in a position to knock them backwards and two situations where you can't knock them backwards and the runner has the advantage. That's the awareness we're trying to develop. Does the player know that he can knock them backwards? And then does the player know what to do to knock them backwards? Our progressions teach not only the technique, but the decision making that needs to go on. And when you're outmatched by bigger, faster, and stronger players, it's going to be your decisions that make the difference.

Talk about your experience working with Bobby Wagner.

We created a system to help coaches be able to tell the player hey, great tackle, however, this is how you can get better. It really came to light when we spoke with Bobby Wagner. We've created some metrics on performance in the tackle and where good starts. In our data when you make a tackle holding a person to two or fewer yards after contact, that is where good starts. If you start allowing over two yards after contact with somebody that's trying to compete like you do, that's when you really show deficiencies in your tackling.

We broke down 32 tackles for Wagner, so 64 yards after contact is where good would start in that situation. He gave up 16 yards after contact, yet his question was how do I make that zero? A lot of guys would be satisfied with 16 yards – he’s not.

What caught his eye is we had something to tell him, where a lot of other coaches don’t. They don’t even know what to tell them. They say, hey, just keep doing what you’re doing. But he wants to be the best and he wants to do it for a long time. So for us to be able to say, you know what you did was a really good job, this is what you can do better, it gives him something to evaluate and to use.

How do you assess individual tackling performance?

Just like we did with Wagner, we take a look at a player's film all year long and tell him and show him what he's doing well, which is important, but also how he can get better.

We measure four levels of primary contact: arm contact, chest contact, head contact, and shoulder contact. At the end of the day, we want to see shoulder contact increase and head contact decrease.

We helped a linebacker from Michigan. He had never finished a season. He’d always been injured, something always happened, and a lot of it had to do with head contact. Well, after we worked with him, he had the biggest decrease in head contact on the entire team and he wound up making Big 10 honors that year, his senior year, and he hadn't done that yet. That was pretty cool.

Do you get any push back from players?

It’s not the players that push back. It’s the coaches. Because pain is a great educator. I’m a tackler and if it feels better to tackle this way, you’re going to want to do that again. Because it feels better, I’m going to do it faster now. I'm going to tackle harder because it feels better.

When it hurts, that's when they don't listen. And that's when they quit believing the coach and that's when they start doing their own thing. Very rarely are you going get a coach to actually experience it and go out and actually hit something. So the coaches experience with it is more of a theoretical kind, but we've had coaches that have actually wanted to feel and experience this and when they did they understood right away.

How can improved tackling techniques help youth football?

There are thousands of football coaches in this country and most of them are at the high school and youth level. The most inexperienced coaches are working with the most inexperienced players and today's coaches are coming in with less knowledge than ever before. Today's coaches are also getting out quicker than ever, mainly because at the highest levels they're getting paid and then they can retire. So the mentoring isn't happening.

The game of football has a lot of problems that it's going to be dealing with for a while. The one place that we're trying to help it is to help improve coaches. If we do that, then the players will have a better experience and they'll want to keep playing and moms and dads will want to keep watching them.

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