Developing mobility for tackling and grappling sports

Tackling sports are dynamic and chaotic. Athletes end up bent and folded in seemingly unpredictable ways. Fortunately, the situations occur in recognizable patterns, and these repeating patterns can give us clues on how to best warm-up and prepare. The collisions and grappling requires a wide range of flexibility and mobility. If an athlete can not move into and out of these tight and jumbled postures, they will avoid them, they will not have the necessary awareness to see them, or they will be injured when they are forced into them. A well designed training program can prepare athletes for these collision positions. 

Expecting the unexpected

When we think about contact-related injuries, it is often the initial impact we focus on. However contact often puts us in new positions we are not prepared for. Here’s a simple example from a rugby tackle showing not online the impact, but the deep lunge positions both players get into:

When training for unconventional positions, understand that the body is reflexive in protecting itself and controls sudden and/or unexpected movement subconsciously. If an athlete is startled, surprised or loses body awareness while falling and/or during hard contact, unnecessary stiffness or uncontrolled relaxation can cause major problems.

If these positions are more familiar, then the chance of a problem is reduced. In other words, we need to help the body expect the unexpected by practicing these uncommon positions and postures to develop and maintain well timed stiffness, suppleness, and perception in the ranges of motion demanded by these sports. In addition, working into and out of the postures in realistic ways creates both the body structure and attentional awareness required for the crash and tumble that is necessary to thrive in the chaos.

It has been normal to treat joints, muscles, and connective tissue like elastic bands or bamboo that needs to be bent, elongated, and reshaped. In this traditional approach the athlete’s body is put under tension for a long time so it is able to flex and bend into new ways. This is effective in changing range of motion in a fixed position, but it does not reflect what the athlete faces when in the battle. Awareness and movement competence must be trained together to handle the specific and dynamic movements and actions that they face. Static mobility and flexibility exercises that are out of context and barely relate to the demands of contact, tackling, and grappling are ineffective. A well thought out movement warm-up that looks to the game for guidance creates the groundwork for the high speed tucks, dives, twists, and lunges needed in tackling and contact sports.

Learning by example

How does this type of preparation look like in practice? In the below video I demonstrate four movements to show how theory can be translated into practice:

  • Lunge to knee
  • Lunge to knee slide
  • Lunge to belly dive
  • Lunge to belly & side rolls

The movements demonstrated here are designed to serve two functions. One, they resemble the tackling and ground contact positions closely enough to prepare the body for better control in positions typical in these sports, and two, these warm-up sequences develop the mobility and flexibility needed to get into out of the tackling and ground contact situations efficiently and safely.

The exercises are not designed to teach a skill; they prepare and maintain the mobility and flexibility to efficiently execute the required collision and grappling skills. I have picked four typical situations, show game examples, then the related warm-up exercises. These movements are designed to be used in warm-up sequences much like lunges, or bodyweight squats would be used. Enjoy!