As the month of June descends into the past and July takes center stage, we football fanatics become fully aware this time of year when the painful longing for gridiron action is nearly unbearable.
Infused with optimism and a new hope for our favorites, the thirst for graceful brutality between the lines reaches an all-time high.
For those NFL players who have been training since March and are now fully enjoying a brief moment of free time, the anticipation of training camp evokes emotions far more bitter than sweet.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be the first organization to begin training camp this year which will have their rookies reporting on July 17. The veterans report a week later on July 24.
So how do NFL players prepare themselves for the annual quarantine, better identified as the most difficult month of their life?
To put things into perspective, first allow me to share a personal moment regarding my own training camp experience.
In the weeks leading up to my third NFL training camp, I was struggling with the disappointment from a recent release by the Atlanta Falcons and was without a team or my usual self-confidence. This perhaps was the most difficult time of my football career after being cut for the third time in less than three years.
Around that same time, I was actually avoiding calls from my agent who was calling me to let me know that both the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens were interested in bringing me into their training camps.
For those who always dreamed of such good fortune, I understand you must be wondering how I wasn’t jumping at the opportunity—which would put you in a similar category as my father at the time.
Being in the NFL was never something I expected in life, nor was it something I depended upon for happiness. Many could perceive this attitude as ambivalence or having a lack of passion for the game, however, that’s a story for another day. The reason for mentioning this at all is to illustrate a critical point about NFL training camps and what it can do to a person’s psyche.
Even with millions of dollars on the line and another opportunity to see an NFL career realized, it’s never a given that a player’s mental preparation for a hellacious month of torture requiring every ounce of your mind, body and soul will come around in a timely manner. Even one of the toughest guys in NFL history, Brett Favre, a guy who doesn’t run much or get hit often, would rather retire every summer rather than show up for training camp.
I too was toiling with the realization of hanging up the cleats and moving on with my life, especially after a concerning injury to my neck suffered during the previous summer while in camp with the Oakland Raiders. After my recent disappointments, which began to take their toll, the last thing I was interested in was to be just another “camp body” brought in to eat up reps so the “real” players could be preserved.
Eventually, I agreed to join Baltimore’s camp after they assured me I had a legitimate shot at making the team, despite arriving a week late.
As for the established players who are expected to make the team and contribute, battling through the scorching heat of training camp does have a silver lining beyond the bodily damage, mental overload and stresses which so often accompanies it.
Despite players league-wide being on formal vacation from all things football, continuous preparation for this event is absolutely necessary.
One of the critical elements in such preparation is to maintain and even improve the bodies’ cardiovascular capabilities. One of the first components to dissipate from an athlete’s training is the cardiovascular system. On the same token, this is also one of the fastest areas the body improves upon as well.
Obviously it’s important for guys not to sit around on a couch all day and eat potato chips. If an athlete abandons his training in favor of total rest and relaxation, he’ll likely suffer severe deterioration of his conditioning, especially cardio.
Though it’s important to keep your cardio training primed and ready for camp, it should be stated that there’s very little anyone can do to completely prepare themselves to be in “football shape.” This is why players who skip camp due to contract disputes or injuries are typically less effective that season, especially early on.
Most players find time throughout their vacation to work on technique, lift weights and try to stay as close to football shape as they possibly can. But anyone who has ever played football knows that everything changes once you put the pads on and start hitting people. There really is no substitute for full-padded contact.
One of my favorite training activities during July preparation was working on my technique in a pool. Not only is it fun to spend the summer in a pool, but it also minimizes wear and tear on joints while providing natural resistance when doing speed training and explosion under water. This method really aids in hand technique and quickness and helped dramatically throughout my career.
Perhaps the most important element for training camp is mental preparation.
As described earlier, if you’re unable to mentally prepare yourself for this high stress, incredibly competitive environment, there’s little chance for you to have a successful training camp and you might want to save yourself the trouble.
How would you spend the majority of your final days of freedom before training camp?
Preparing the mind for such an ordeal consists of several aspects—coming to terms with what lays ahead is a good start. After that it’s probably a good idea to consider setting goals and mapping out exactly how you plan to achieve them. This should ease anxiety by providing manageable steps to make the desired outcomes seem much more attainable.
In addition, it’s critical for any successful football player to begin the process of mental strengthening. This can be done by constantly reminding yourself of the potential rewards waiting at the end of the rainbow (motivation) while simultaneously conditioning the mind for long periods of constant pain. The mind can embrace this pain by blocking out as much of it as you can while also believing it’s all worth it—for this to happen you must find a way to have fun whenever and however possible.
A positive attitude can make all the difference in the world.
Without any one of these essential elements, a player is sure to struggle mightily while trying to compete against the best athletes in the world in an incredibly brutal sport.
Every player has their own method for preparing for training camp. Each individual must find that balance between rest and work.
Any way you slice it, nobody actually looks forward to the end of their summer freedom. Having to kiss the family goodbye as you head off to work for the next few weeks is a difficult thing to do.
There’s a reason only a select few can ever make it this far. In professional football, only the mentally tough make it out alive. In the end, nothing builds and reveals character quite like an NFL training camp.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played defensive end at the University of California, where he still holds the single-season sack record. Afterwards, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.