The Shadowman: The Safest and Smartest Way to Practice Tackling

In football, poor tackling form causes countless serious injuries every single year. The only way to improve tackling technique is to perform hundreds of reps the right way, but when 57 percent of all concussions occur during practice, the solution does not involve two able-bodied players colliding over and over again. That’s where the Shadowman comes in.

Developed by Shadowman Sports, the Shadowman tackling system is a dynamic piece of equipment that allows players to practice tackling at game speed without the risk of injury inherent in player-to-player contact. USA Football, the national governing body of amateur football in the United States, has teamed up with Shadowman Sports and will be using the Shadowman in their camps, practices and events to help young players learn how to tackle in a safe, effective manner.

STACK took a closer look at the Shadowman to find out more about increasingly popular piece of tackling technology.

A Smart Solution

Shadowman Tackling System

The concept for Shadowman originated in 2010, when J.P. Hartigan, CEO and founder of Shadowman Sports, was in his senior year at the University of Limerick in Ireland. Hartigan was studying Product Design & Technology and exploring topics for his senior thesis. A rugby player himself, he conducted research on the equipment used in collision sports and noticed a troubling trend. Injury rates were on the rise and—due to the increased size and athleticism of players—the amount of force produced by an average hit was higher than ever.

“It was kind of this global problem coming in sports. I knew how big of a problem it was in rugby, and then when I looked into football, I found out they were having the same issue,” Hartigan says.

Hartigan believed there were three ways to combat the problem—equipment, education and rule changes. He decided to focus on equipment and education, and the concept for Shadowman became his senior thesis.

After patenting the idea, Hartigan began working to make it a reality. He knew that for players and coaches to actually use Shadowman, it would have to look right, move right and feel right. After roughly three years of research, design and development—which included the production of over 100 prototypes with several manufacturers—the current model of the Shadowman was born. “It was quite a journey, but I think it’s a testament to the product you see today,” Hartigan says.

Tailored for Technique

Although football execs and coaches are striving to make the sport safer, the vast majority of practice equipment does not reflect the new values. Old-school tackling dummies force players to tackle a stationary target—a skill that doesn’t translate to improved form and effectiveness on the field. By integrating movement into the design of the Shadowman tackling system, Shadowman Sports created a practice tool that allows players to work on their tackling technique in more realistic scenarios and refine their skills without risking injury. Here’s a video of the Shadowman in action:

 

The movement of the Shadowman allows for high-speed quality reps without the inherent dangers of extensive player-to-player contact. This feature is possible thanks to the Shadowman's three-part design—an air-filled dummy, a water-filled sled and an adjustable harness.

The design is purposely minimalist, resulting in a humanoid figure that naturally facilitates proper tackling form. Hartigan says, “We looked to reduce it down to what it needs to be. Ergonomically, it’s got oversized shoulders, which allows people to get low and hit on the rise, which is what you want. It’s got a low center of gravity, so if you try to tackle it high, you aren’t going to make a secure tackle."

Shadowman rewards tackling low and proper tackling form. Three target zones act as visual guides for both players and coaches. “Coaches can visibly see where players are aiming on their tackles, and they can give feedback to their players based on that. For example, they can tell a player to aim at a lower target zone—and thanks to the visual cue, the player knows right where to aim,” Hartigan says.

The dummy can detach from the base, allowing players to explode up and through a tackle, something that is not possible with many traditional tackling dummies or sleds. The Shadowman also allows for one player to work on his tackling form while another builds strength and conditioning by pulling it like a traditional weighted sled.

But all of this doesn’t mean jack if the thing breaks after a couple of big hits from a burly linebacker. Luckily, durability was a top priority during the Shadowman’s development. “We tried about 15 different materials to find the best one to work with and what felt right when you’re tackling it. It couldn’t be too rigid, it had to have a little elasticity to allow for good impact,” Hartigan says.

They settled on a special type of PVC that mimics the forces a player feels when making a tackle while also maintaining a high tear and tensile strength. You can hit it thousands of times, over and over again, and the Shadowman will always be ready for the next rep. The same cannot be said for a teammate!

RELATED: Master Heads Up Football's 5 Tackling Drills and Techniques

Real Reps the Right Way

In addition to USA Football, several top tier college programs, like Oregon, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have integrated the Shadowman into their regular training. And its usage is not limited tobasic tackling drills. Hartigan says, “Coaches love the different applications. It gives them a way to create new drills and use it in existing drills, and that gets them excited. Parents are also liking it, because it’s a new approach to training. It’s allowing their kids to improve but in a safe way."

USA Football coaches have already begun getting creative in their use of the Shadowman.

 

Although safety might not be a young player’s chief concern, Hartigan says players love the Shadowman because it allows them to practice aggressively and get better. USA Football recommends limiting full-contact drills to 30 minutes a day, but football has and will always be a collision sport. The ability to work on that skill as much as you want is something players appreciate.

“They love the contact," Hartigan says. "They love the action of tackling. Governing bodies are trying to cut down on the amount of contact time allowed during practices, and this is letting them get an endless amount of reps while still complying with the rules."

For more info on the Shadowman, head to ShadowmanSports.com.