Friday, July 14, 2006

Practice shouldn't be hell

I'd like to take a moment and retreat from my recent criticisms of the press and team organizations, as well as my mutterings on social ideologies and talk about a subject that has always been close to my heart: football. I read an article today about how summer camps in the NFL are universally cutting back on practice time and the strenuousness of practices.

Having played football all through high school, I can testify to the mental and physical toll of two-a-day practices. Two and a half weeks with 6 hours of football a day can really wear players down. Although I can only remember two or three season-ending injuries happening in training camp, there were certainly mental prices that were being paid in October and November.

While the NFL is justified in cutting back practice time to preserve player health, high schools should also realize the importance of player psyche. The NFL spends the entire year getting its players in shape and there isn't much difference between a six year vet and a 4 year vet in terms of football knowledge. Players really don't get that much better in those camps.

While high school is different in the improvement aspect, there is certainly more of a psyche factor for 15-18 year olds. After my team lost a heartbreaker in the first round of the playoffs, nearly half of my senior class rolled into the locker room proclaiming that they wouldn't ever have to run sprints anymore. How on earth can you justify having players that could possibly not want to win in the playoffs because they hate practice so much? Now certainly you might say that the team just is full of wimps who don't love the game. But if these guys are skilled and willing to play, there is some responsibility on the coach to get them to love the game. These guys aren't getting paid. They also aren't fully matured. But there has to be a finer line between getting players in shape and making them hate the game they are playing.

I think that a lot of that would emanate from the attitude that once camp begins in the summer, fitness has to be remarketed. Coaches and teams promulgate the sensibility that two-a-days are hell. Football is hell. Somehow in November it will all be worth it. Unfortunately, my teammates had had enough. They didn't care anymore. For that I blame the coach and his approach to the game. Practice has to be informative, skill-building, fit-building and fun. I know it sounds cliche, but watch every football movie on the planet. Practice always looks like hell, but then something happens and it's fun. When it's fun the players magically do better. Somehow that's always lost on people. Maybe because the football gods would curse them as being pussies.

I spent one week at basketball camp this summer and saw all of this play out in little microcosms. Every morning my league of 10-year olds had to go outside in the morning humidity to do basketball drills. The first couple of days involved a good bit of yelling, telling them not to do something, and pushing them to complete the drills. I will be honest and say that their performances were pitiful. By Wednesday, I was trying to be as positive with my group as I could. I made my drills competitive instead of draining. I repackaged the experience for them, while essentially making them do the same things. As a result, my group was throwing better passes, hitting more shots and running harder than any other group out there.

Don't come away from this opinion with the impression that here's another pussy who's sour over having a losing football team, probably being out of shape, and certainly is a lily-livered liberal (don't know why I threw that in there, maybe because of that picture of Kerry not being able to throw a football). Fitness can't always be fun, and yet it is integral to being able to play the game well. But in practice situations, fitness has to be re-packaged and re-integrated. Players shouldn't spend the entire practice scared at how many sprints they will have at the end. When that's the case, they will never practice loose and pick up the skills that the scrimmages and drills are meant to teach. When coaches can establish a different mental approach to training - especially with younger players - they will be able to reap better results from their guys.

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