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NFL training camp is a mental grind, too

Long days with lots of meetings and just a little practice squeezed in ... retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains how training camp has changed over the years.

NFL: Oakland Raiders-Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

NFL training camps are in full swing, and the first preseason game, the Hall of Fame game, is Thursday night. I enjoy talking about the camp process on Twitter and often get “what was/is camp like?” Well, I have the unique perspective having been apart of training camp practices under the old and new Collective Bargaining Agreements. They are vastly different.

When you hear the old timers say that camp is much different now, they aren’t lying. Camp under the old CBA (pre-2011) had many different versions over the years. Triple days, double days, etc. When I played in Carolina under John Fox from 2008-2010, back-to-back double days had already been eliminated, so we had a double followed by a single and so on. We also didn’t have constraints on practice time.

I can only speak to the schedule we had, but the general idea was the same and pretty simple. On the double day, we had full pads at 9 a.m., then another padded practice in just uppers (shoulder pads with shorts) at 6:30 p.m.

Between the end of the first practice and the second one, we had lunch and time for treatment, which often included a mandatory ice bath. Cooled off and with some food in the belly, we had a decent break. After the break (which should include a nap), we had meetings around 3 p.m. to review the practice film and prepare for the next session. Then, we were back on the field after a light dinner and tape. Practice was over around 9 p.m., followed by another mean before lights out.

On the single day, we woke up around 6:30 a.m., had breakfast, meetings, lifted, ate lunch, and prepared for practice in full pads which started at 3 p.m. After practice, we ate dinner and had more meetings until around 9 p.m. or so.

Every now and then, we had a Wednesday night off and had a weekend day off maybe after 10 days.

For injured players missing practice, there were no breaks. Most of their “break” time was spent in the training room working towards getting back on the field.

Clearly this schedule is physically intensive and I don’t remember how I got through it. We just did it. That was our job. You had to be mentally tough to deal with the schedule, lack of free time, the heat, the soreness and the uneasy feeling of being on a roster bubble.

I do remember thinking “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

We had a long walk down a ramp to the practice field at Wofford College. When I stepped out of the air conditioned locker room to make that walk and felt the sun on my face, I knew it was going to be a long day.

When you’re a young player it’s hard to understand the why of camp. Now that I’m finished playing and of course much wiser, I understand the purpose of two-a-days.

The first is clearly reps. Can never have enough reps that are close to game speed. The famous Vince Lombardi line “practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect” applies to camp. There’s a fine line between quality reps and just reps to get them in. Certain positions, like offensive linemen and quarterbacks, need as many practice plays as close to full speed as possible. Just as an example, If we are running a zone play to the right, ideally you’d like to run that play against multiple looks many times in camp. That way you can practice all the necessary blocks required, and the entire running unit, including the tight end and running backs, can feel how each run will play out against each defense. These reps are invaluable for the run game.

The second reason for double days sort of piggybacks on the first. You need quality reps when you’re tired. You have to build up those callouses in camp and dig deep to work through the soreness and fatigue. Working through all that in camp helps tremendously during the season. The more your body, and more importantly your brain, figures out how to use the proper techniques to get through the fatigue, you’re better able to get through the season and individual games when the going gets tough.

Now, throw out everything I just said above because camp is nothing like that now. Rules were put in place for the amount of contact and time on the field, plus off days are mandatory. I don’t disagree that this isn’t an excellent change for the players. It keeps older players fresh and should, in theory, reduce injuries as the season goes on. But the new camp schedule has changed the game; it’s impossible to deny that. The first month of the regular season is sloppy and feels like the preseason because players are still getting used to full speed reps again.

Camp is less of a physical grind and more of a mental grind, having the same camp hours as before but with less practice time. Camp started with full pads on the first day of practice under the old CBA; it’s now two days of non padded practices, with the technically fourth day of camp (check in day and two days on top of that) being the first one in pads. One practice can be in pads and the other must be a walk through without any gear on. There must be no more than four hours of time spent on the field with a mandatory three hours between practices.

So how is the time spent? Meetings and down time. The schedule typically starts around 7 a.m. and ends at 9:30 p.m. I’ve done camp multiple ways, with meetings followed by practice and an afternoon walk through, or meetings followed by a walk through, lunch and then a practice. The night is always the same. Dinner and more meetings. Treatment and rehab is sprinkled in throughout the day. Every other day you find time to lift.

This schedule tends to have a few chunks of down time, but never enough to go find a bed. Down time is spent resting in your locker, watching film, bullshitting with your friends, getting some extra treatment, playing games in the locker room and talking with family.

Camp isn’t as physical as in the past, but it’s still a mental grind. The hours spent in the facility and focused on football can be tough on younger players. Older players just can’t wait to get camp over. I’ve spoken with a few veterans so far in camp and their answer to the question “How’s camp going” is always “good, just can’t wait to get it over with.”