A Look Into Training Camp From the Football Insider

When I say the words training camp, what do you picture?

Practice all day, every day? Meals in a big dining hall, everyone being forced to eat together at the exact same time, like a giant version of high school? Players living in dorms together, like summer camp? Well, you’d be partially right. Training camp can be a mix of all those things, yet there is so much the public doesn’t see. The media doesn’t report much besides the actual practices of training camp because the ‘extra’ actives might be seen as boring. Yet, it is the actives beyond practice that make up the substance of a true training camp, whether professional or collegiate.

Let me take a moment to define the training camp I know and experience. Currently, I work in a small division 1AA collegiate football program. The team plays in the Football Championship Series, which means they compete in a playoff style post season, rather than participating in bowls. In this first post, I will discuss camp from the angle of the players, with discussions of the life of the coaches and support staff following.

First, the players have to be invited to camp. It’s not a given for any player, though certain players traditionally receive invitations. Freshman always receive invitations, because the coaches want to get a good look at their new recruits and see who might be able to play right away. A freshman must really impress in camp to escape being ‘redshirted’ (basically sitting for a year). And more than likely a true freshman will only get the opportunity to play  because injuries stack up at a certain position. The other group of players that traditionally receive automatic invitations are the starters from the previous years. There is such a thing as bubble players in college; players that don’t get invited to camp but may show up to ‘walk on’ once the school year starts. The number of invitations tends to hover around 95-100 players, depending on the size of the school. And yes, it is possible for players to be basically told not to return to training camp, for whatever reason.

Once the players arrive at camp, they live in dorms, not because they choose to, but because  it’s a requirement so that bed check can be performed. It makes sense for the players because living in the dorms puts them closer to all the faculties and dining halls, where they spend all of their time. And I do mean all their time. There is very little true free time, or even down time. The day begins as early as 6:30 AM, when breakfast begins. Directly after breakfast, treatment begins at the training room and directly after that practice begins at around 8:45 or 9:00 AM. A typical practice last about two and a half hours, regardless of the time of day when the practice occurs. Then lunch and maybe some orientation programs for the freshman or educational programs for the returning players.

This is the point at which the day-to-day schedule can change. Sometimes there is afternoon treatment, probably starting at around 2:00 PM, then meetings before practice and then a second practice, starting around 4:00 or 5:00 PM. Then dinner, then more meetings, and probably team meetings until about 9:00 PM. This is the traditional ‘two-a-day’ schedule that most people associate with training camps. The NCAA has restrictions that limit the number of practices any college program can have as well as how long the players can practice on a given day and the minimum amount of time they are required to rest between practices.

If there is not a second practice after lunch, there is conditioning and walk-through practice. A walk-through practice is simply a no pads, no helmets run-through of the offensive plays and defensive schemes. During the season, this is the kind of practice that players participate in the day before a game. After the walk-through practice, conditioning and dinner, there are more meetings, which last, once again, until at least 9:00 PM. Then off to the dorms for some rare free time and bed check at 11:00 PM. Are you getting the idea of how much goes on behind the scenes? How much there is to life at camp besides simple practices? How long the days can be? How draining it would be for a freshman, or even a fifth year senior? Does this picture of training camp sound glamorous and desirable? Would you want to have a firm schedule like that for three straight weeks?

For the players, camp can be beyond mentally and physically exhausting. There are no real games to play and the only people they get to hit are their own teammates. (Though teams that are close geographically will sometimes get together for a preseason scrimmage, or joint practice.) As a consequence, fights tend to break out in camp. By the time the players move out of the football dorm, it can be a relief for them to have some space and even take classes. No one likes to work a nine-plus hour day. And of course, athletes aren’t getting paid, though many do receive scholarships.

Overall, for the players, camp is all the dirty work that must be done before they can play games. It certainly serves to separate the weak from the strong. To truly understand what camp life is like for the players, you need to almost imagine completely giving up your life to the schedule of someone else, twenty-four/seven. To have nearly every waking moment dedicated to getting better at a sport. A sport which in reality, many of them will only play for four or five more years. It takes players away from their family and often their non-football playing friends. In many ways it is a sacrifice. Just imagine what it would be like to put in all that work, every day, and not even get to see the field? For all those who think football is a glamorous sport, going through camp is the quickest way to strip that fantasy away.

Ace Zaffirisi is the future Commissioner of the NFL, currently working in a college program; she runs a small NFL blog, found at footballoffice.blogspot.com.

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