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Keith Elias: Training eliminates fear of tackling for kids

NFL Evolution will feature a guest columnist every Tuesday, each with a different viewpoint of player health and safety from the youth level to pro football.

By Keith Elias, NFL Evolution columnist

When I was a kid one of my favorite movies was "The Karate Kid" -- the original one that starred Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi.

My favorite scene had Daniel was balancing himself on the bow of a row boat in the middle of a freezing-cold lake while he and Mr. Miyagi had a conversation about fear. Daniel asked Miyagi if he had been in a fight as a kid. Miyagi assured him he had been in plenty of fights, and was scared every time. Daniel wondered out loud how that could be so, because Miyagi knew karate and karate is about fighting.

"Is that what you think?" Miyagi asked.

"No," Daniel replied. Then Miyagi asked him the question that changed everything.

"Then why train?" In essence he asked, why take karate?

Daniel looked at him and said, "So I won't have to fight."

Everybody remembers "sand the floor," but for me, this is the heart of the film. Of course, it is Daniel's fighting prowess that makes the climax so memorable, but we get what Daniel said. Learning how to fight removed the fear of fighting.

For young players, learning to tackle properly can take the fear out of football. The confidence Daniel gained from knowing the skill of fighting enabled him to navigate conflict. He wouldn't do things out of fear or anger because he had been trained.

Football is about conflict. Whereas many sports have contact, football is about collision. One thing I learned as a Heads Up Football Ambassador is something Daniel learned in the Karate Kid: Conflict in life, as in football, is unavoidable.

Being the most trained person, whether it is in self-defense or tackling, helps to navigate the conflict and the conflict in football is the collision. If we train the next generation of players to understand the art and skill of tackling, they will be better prepared to navigate the conflict that awaits them on the gridiron.

For me, though, technique is only part of the equation for success. USA Football's Heads Up Football teaches a tackling progression to a young player that includes: Breakdown, Buzz, Hit, Shoot, and Rip. If you have ever played football, you know it moves fast. At one of the tackling clinics, I saw a young player get confused trying to remember the steps. Sensing his distress, one coach took him aside and gave him simple advice in just a sentence or two. And after that, the player understood and was able to play the game at full speed.

I am convinced the safest way to play is full speed. What I learned from that experience is that it's the caring coach, the one that takes the time to learn how to communicate to a single individual that makes the difference. I learned that true transformation happens not just through a tackling technique, but through a group of dedicated individuals who love this game. The best coaches' desire to change a culture that once taught lowering your head and blasting someone is the way to play, and in some way bestows some measure of masculinity.

One of the hallmarks of football has been its ability to adapt and change. Innovation has been at its foundation from the day an unknown young association-football (soccer) player at the rugby school had the audacity to catch the ball and run with it, forever changing the planet.

Since then football has evolved into the game many of us know and love. The newest innovations still uphold the essence of what makes the game great. Things like hard work, responsibility to team, and resilience are still at its core.

However, gone are the days (like when I grew up) where well-meaning coaches said things like, "If a guy is in the way, lower your head, and plow him over." Now, the culture of football is to play hard, play fast, but also play safe. And I think that makes it a better game.

Keith Elias is a former NFL running back with the New York Giants and the Indianapolis Colts. He now works as a motivational speaker and as an ambassador for the Heads Up Football program.

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