Scaffolding approach to tackling

Inspired by the work of Nick Hart, a headteacher and author of the blog,Thisismyclassroom, here is a “scaffolding” approach to teaching tackling.

Scaffolding is where you build support around a task as it is introduced and built up. You then take away the scaffolding as the player becomes confident and competent.

It was first coined in the late 1970s and we probably use a number of elements of this approach in our own coaching.

Before we start, let’s double-check what scaffolding is not, with the help of Nick’s checklist:

X Creating different tasks for children
X Making the work easier
X Catering for a perceived learning style

It is about ADAPTING a challenging task to enable success. For example, a tackle could start with just being able to get close to a ball carrier. If the player can be successful in that, we move to the next “chunk”.

Scaffolding REDUCES the cognitive load. That means the player only focuses on one or two movements rather than the whole. For example, getting the feet close to the ball carrier. If a player has too many elements to focus on, then they will not do any of them well.


Tackling requires a mix of skill and mindset. Skills are techniques performed under pressure. The mindset is the desire to want to tackle. They are interlinked because confidence to tackle often comes from knowing the best way to tackle.

Building up a skillset to tackle should not only improve the outcomes, it should also help those players who shy away from tackling. Crucially, scaffolding should reduce injuries because the players are taking contact skillfully and when it is appropriate to do so.

Some of the scaffolding techniques Nick sets out are more appropriate to the classroom, though it is easy to see ways in which we could adapt them to our training needs. However, concentrating on on-the-field practice, I won’t delve into graphic organisers or oral rehearsal with an adult here.

Break tasks down into small chunks

Tackling skills require a number of techniques to work at the same time: footwork to get close, head position tight to the ball carrier and in a safe position, strong grip, and leg drive to complete the tackle.

You could work on each aspect in training with all your players, not just those who are less able. For example, you could use ruck pads to help the player to get close, walking rugby to practise getting the head in tight and grab-tackle touch for strong grips.

These activities should give the players plenty of chances for success. But, you must explain why you are focusing on the aspect in the context of the whole tackle. See Prioritise understanding over task completion.

Allow enough time to practise automatically

Automaticity (buzzword alert) really means that a player can perform the task without thinking. That requires a certain amount of repetition. Ideally, that repetition is slightly different each time.

With tackling, that could be practising with different players, arriving from slightly different angles or a slightly different speeds.

This could be achieved through low-impact, warm-up type tackling tasks. For example, tackling on the knees.

Give sufficient time to process instructions and work on tasks

Clear explanations, especially where tackling is concerned, is important from a safety point of view. However, how long do we allow the players to process those instructions?

Check for understanding by asking questions. Use slow-motion demonstrations, and then slow-motion run-throughs to give the players more time to process. Also, practise with familiar exercises, with small additions each time.

Don’t expect the players to pick up the skill in a short period of time. Return to the skill over a period of a number of sessions.

Prioritise understanding over task completion

“Nailing” the technique is a performance outcome, but not a learning outcome. It takes time for players to embed good habits.

Their tackle performance may not be perfect or even close to perfect. However, check that they can explain or even slow-motion demonstrate what they should be doing.

For example, what does a tight grip look like? Where does the head need to be? Do all the players show this understanding, not just those willing to answer questions?

Use concrete/pictorial representations

Clearly, demonstrations before and after the exercise are ideal for showing the players good practice.

Use “backwards” chaining to illustrate the finishing position of a tackle. This helps players know what’s good and what to aim for.

Backwards chaining starts with the end product. You then work step-by-step backwards, checking that each step is correct.

Pre-teaching interventions

If you are introducing tackling or introducing a type of tackling, why not send out the key information beforehand, via social media or messaging. For example, what key points you are going to concentrate, or pictures of a good tackle.

With younger players, showing grown-ups tackling isn’t effective because they won’t picture themselves making the tackle. Diagrams of good tackling might be a better idea.

This helps reduce new information at the point of training, allows reflection and possible questions ahead of the activities.

Use partially completed examples

Why not start with the tackler already in contact with the ball carrier. Perhaps they can have one hand, gripping the shorts. Or the head and shoulder in contact with the side of the ball carrier.

Another way is to have the players on their knees, though this takes out the leg drive element.

Use minimally different questions (variation theory)

Repetition without repetition is a good way to give the players a better understanding of the decision making processes in a tackle. That is, where to put the foot, when to dip, when to engage, how hard to grip. The players repeat the exercise but from the point of view slightly different scenarios.

Mix up the exercise you are using by varying starting points for the ball carrier and tackler. For example, the ball carrier can be in front of the tackle, one step to the side, two steps to the side, either on the left or the right. There’s only a minimal change, but enough to make the tackler have to slightly adjust.

Yet, they still need to go through the tackle process, get close, head in tight and in the right position, grip tight, drive through (or let the ball carrier’s momentum do the work).

Here are some exercises and activities to help your scaffolding techniques.

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