Buckling down and covering the basics is vital to the success of any football program. When you are teaching youth to play flag football, it is the basic fundamentals that will carry your team to victory.

The difference between flag football and tackle football is well known. While tackle football requires physically bringing the runner to the ground to stop the play, flag football depends on a skill that requires much more dexterity to complete. Grabbing the flag, on either side of the ball carrier’s hips, can be difficult if not done correctly. It is a skill, which if taught correctly, will remain useful throughout the career of the player, even as s/he becomes involved in tackle football.  

Many youth, as they are learning, are apprehensive about the idea of full contact football. It isn’t unreasonable to believe that the idea of a hard impact, or violent confrontation with another player, distracts them from learning and executing the basic fundamentals of football. This is the advantage of teaching techniques in flag football, when the distraction of contact is minimally invasive in the player’s mind.

Proper Flag Pulling

If we properly teach our players to pull the flag of an opposing ball carrier while in flag football, the same fundamentals will be used when it comes time to tackle a ball carrier in tackle football. Let’s look at the basic fundamentals to teach our flag footballers now; let them perfect them; and excel when they play at the next level.

  • Hips Squared to the Ball Carrier

Teach your players to bear down in front of the ball carrier, squaring their hips with the opponent.  This will accomplish multiple goals:

  1. Squared hips will allow the defensive player to be prepared to react to any sudden changes of direction of the offensive player. Preach to the defensive player to “bear down,” or drop their hips and keep their feet “chopping” to keep them on the balls of their feet, which will improve their reaction time.
  2. Squared hips in front of the opponent will place an obstacle in front of the offensive player, slowing their momentum as they prepare to change direction, spin, or brace for contact with the defender.
  3. Finally, with the hips squared to the ball carrier, the defensive player has set themselves up into perfect position to access and pull the flag of the ball carrier.

Should the defender miss the flag of the offensive opponent, by obstructing the runner’s path, the defender will also create an opportunity for other teammates to catch up to the play and assist in stopping the opponent.

While squaring up the hips, make sure your defensive player maintains his eyes on the ball carrier’s stomach, ignoring the eyes, hands, and feet. Where the torso goes, the body must follow. This is not true for the eyes, hands, and feet.

This is a great opportunity to emphasize that your defender not lunge, or sprawl after the ball runner, in an attempt to obtain the flag. Being unstable and ill-prepared to respond to a redirection will result in a missed opportunity to bring the ball carrier “down.” Teach them not to side step to reach for the flag, or to turn their hips away from being squared with the runner. This only opens up the opportunity to become unstable, unable to respond to changes of direction, and eliminates one arm (the furthest away from the opponent) from having the potential to reach a flag.

  • Shoot to the Hips

As the ball carrier nears your defender, who has squared his/her hips to the opponent, s/he prepares to make a move to grab the flag on either hip of the opponent. Much like in tackle football, the next step is to drive the hands out, towards the hips of the runner.

While in tackle football, we would explosively drive our arms past the hips and up and under the arm pits of the ball carrier, in flag football, we shoot our hands to the hips and control the runner’s hips by grasping and tightening up on the hanging flag. See below.

  • Grasp and Hold

Instead of swiping at the flag, it is imperative that the defender grab and tightly hold the flag, reducing the likelihood of the flag slipping through their hands as they “swipe” for it. It should be taught that the defender attempt to grab both flags, one hand on each hip, simultaneously. Encourage them to let the runner’s energy and inertia remove the flag from the opponent. Limiting the arm movement of the defender to a light downward motion and allowing the runner to “run out of” their flag will produce more successful “tackles” of the ball carrier.  

  • Practice, Practice, Practice

Repeatedly preach these basics to your players. Instilling these fundamentals, making them second nature by repeated exposure, will pay off in dividends. These simple, frequently overlooked basics are oftentimes the dictator of victory or defeat.

A balanced, well-prepared, and proactive defender will be more productive in their responsibilities than an unbalanced, unprepared, and reactionary defender.

If your flag football players are preparing to stop the opponent’s ball carrier using these tactics now, when it comes time to teach them to tackle an opponent, with the inevitable heavy contact on their minds, they will naturally revert to these tactics under stress, and be successful in their endeavors.