19.05 August/September 2007
Risk Management

Drilling Safety

Great drills make great practices. But without the correct safety precautions, even the best drill can end in disaster.

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CMAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled Coaching for Safety, A Risk Management Handbook for High School Coaches, and is published by ESD112.


The use of drills to improve athletes' skill levels has always been and continues to be a staple during practices. Athletic libraries are full of books with titles like Winning Drills for this or that sport.

Properly designed and controlled drills also help lower the chance of injuries. But improperly designed drills can actually lead to injury and raise the risk of a lawsuit.

No matter what sport they are involved in, coaches need to understand the nuances of what makes a drill safe or unsafe. Practice may make perfect, but only if the risks are understood.

The Right Progression
Drills should have a purpose and be progressive. For example, coaches must teach the correct techniques for hurdling before the athlete practices going over the hurdle. Athletes learn how to position their steps, extend the lead leg, and land. You learn skill A before B, and B before C. Then you combine A, B, and C.

The new hurdler also begins with a lower hurdle before trying regulation height. And we make sure athletes can safely get over the hurdles before we allow them to run a hurdle drill at full speed.

Track and field provides a simple example because the hurdle is a constant and the progress is very linear. When team play enters the equation, progression can get a little trickier, although it is just as important.

For example, if a basketball team is learning an alley-oop play for the first time, you'll want to start with only the offense on the court. Once the post player has learned how to maneuver himself for the pass and dunk, you might add a coach as a stationary defender. Only when the post player has learned how to correctly make the play with the nonmoving defender should you add a live defense.

Similarly, you want to equalize competition as much as possible, especially in full contact drills. Age, size, and experience should be considered. One player should not be so much better than the other that there is a safety concern. If a freshman wide receiver lines up in practice against the all-state cornerback, you are risking injury.

Proper progression must also be used on a daily basis. Athletes need to be warmed up before going full speed, even if they arrive late to practice. I listened to a coach tell me about her star tennis player. The athlete arrived late and missed the general warm up. She jumped right into an all out "wave" drill where everyone sprinted as fast as possible in the direction indicated by the coach. On the first run, the star pulled a hamstring. She sat out the next few matches.

Explain & Watch
When a drill seems simple, a coach may not spend a lot of time explaining it. That is a mistake. Not only should the steps of the drill be explained, but also the purpose of it. Some drills are for form only, some are passive competitive, and some are full contact. Let the players know the parameters.

Remember to not only demonstrate how to do the drill, but also what not to do. When teaching proper tackling in football, for example, explain why athletes should never tackle with the head down.

Once the explanations are done, coaches must watch and critique how the players are doing, using a whistle or other technique to quickly stop a drill when needed. A mistake I see many coaches make is talking to other coaches while running a drill.

Both of these shortcomings were part of a football lawsuit in which I served as an expert witness. Two coaches were running a "Bull in the Ring" drill. An offensive lineman stood in the middle of a 10-foot ring of six potential pass rushers. If the rusher, who had to be facing the man in the center, moved forward, the middleman would pass block the rusher. As the coaches talked, some of the rushers took advantage and approached the lineman from the side. It seemed like fun until the injury.

More than just watching, coaches must know the best place from which to observe a drill. All activity should be in front of the coach. All participants should be able to hear the coach's directions clearly and immediately.

If your group is large and you can't observe all the action, get help or change how you do the drill. You might not be able to watch 10 down linemen block 10 football dummies at one time. You could, however, watch two blockers, blow a whistle to stop the action, move to the next two blockers, and repeat the sequence.

Inspection Needed
Another important step is to inspect the equipment and drill area you are going to use. For example, check to make sure the soccer goal posts are anchored before starting the drill. Are all the players wearing mouthpieces? Are the tackling dummies in proper working order?

In Arizona, a simple two-on-one fast break basketball drill was ruined by the lack of foresight. Someone left volleyball poles about one foot off the base line. The coach running the basketball drill did nothing about moving them--until after a player was injured running into the poles.

Before starting a drill, look around. If there is a hazard, remove it. If you cannot remove the hazard, modify the drill. If you cannot modify the drill, do not use it.

Remember to adjust the drill if you practice an outdoor sport indoors. Too much activity in too little space can create problems. Lacrosse and soccer balls rebound faster off gym walls. Receivers now have to look out for defenders and glass doors.

Avoid taking those in your charge to practice areas that are not designed for athletics. When a St. Louis high school coach could not use his field, he moved his team to a small, unused area in the parking lot. A player broke her leg when she ran into a car.

Choose Safety
For many coaches, coming up with new drills is a fun challenge. But "creative" drills are often the most unsafe. For example, having one baseball player run clockwise around the bases while another runs counter-clockwise may sound like a really fun way to improve base- running skills. But it is clearly unsafe and should not be used.

Having too much going on at once, not being able to see all players, and improper progression are the major causes of risky drills. Before you introduce a new drill to your players, try it out yourself and think about potential hazards. Always remember to look at the operation of the drill from the standpoint of safety.