How Do NFL Players Actually Benefit from Training Camp?

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How Do NFL Players Actually Benefit from Training Camp?
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Guys focus in as the intensity is turned up.

Training camp in the NFL is already underway for some teams, while others are merely days away. But just how much of a return does all of a player's preparation and effort in the grueling midsummer heat yield?

I’d like to utilize this particular piece as a follow-up to a previous article of mine by spending a little more time focusing on some of the actual benefits of camp.

Recently, I did some research on training camps and how they affect a player’s season. The intention of the research was to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the positive impact, if any, that it has on performance.

The results that my extensive research returned regarding the value of such intensive labor were shocking. As a guy with an NFL background, it was only natural that the possibility of finding evidence that diminished the importance of camp would be a devastating blow.

It’s sort of like the equivalent of a guy with a master’s degree discovering there’s no correlation between education and annual income. Of course, this example is merely hypothetical, but it still serves to point out how counterintuitive such a revelation would be.

From the research mentioned earlier, I pieced together an article that hints at unthinkable conclusions. The data I uncovered did dispel, or at least moderate, many perceptions surrounding camp and its necessity to achieve success at a high level.

However, here are some actual advantages one can expect from full participation in a training camp.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Did Maurice Jones-Drew increase his chances of injury by holding out of training camp last summer?

According to the aforementioned article, players averaged 7.61 games per year during seasons where they missed most or all of training camp. In contrast, those same guys averaged 12.48 games per year in seasons where they had at least most of a full training camp under their belt.

So how does camp help prevent injury?

Nothing can prepare the body for the mutilation of an NFL football season quite like the mutilation from the training camp that precedes it.

When you put it that way, it sounds kind of unnecessary. Allow me to explain.

In professional football, the months of July and August serve as a way for players to ease their bodies into the physicality of the game without having to fly around at full throttle for at least a few weeks. This acclimation process is extreme, yet extremely helpful nonetheless.

However, changes are constantly being made to make the sport less damaging to the body over the long term. The NFL Players Association recently pushed for, and achieved, a significant reduction in offseason contact, including training camp.

This has made the grind of an NFL summer a bit more tolerable at the professional ranks—though it remains to be seen whether a subdued camp experience will prolong a player’s career.

With this as the status quo in the NFL, the one element that really pushes the intensity beyond that of the college experience is the unparalleled quality of competition. The strength, speed, skill and unmatched effort throughout the league will surely compensate for any reduction in the time allotment under current CBA restrictions.

But it’s during these full-padded practices where the body is finally given an opportunity to build up a resistance to contusions, abrasions, sprains and all the pains from constant collisions with rock-hard equipment, muscle and bone.

In an article detailing my training-camp experience, I had this to say:

Your body has likely been bashed and trampled so much that you can no longer distinguish bruised flesh from normal. With muscles so stiff and fatigued, the brief walk from hotel to locker is a challenge. Your body is screaming for rest; your mind is constantly at the breaking point. My feet would develop massive blisters on the big toes.

Pain becomes relative in the NFL. Amidst all of this, as a rookie trying to make the team on a daily basis, you have no choice but to dig deep, suck it up and slide those battered legs into a pair of freshly washed, tight, silver practice pants. These were the moments when I thought: Is all of this worth it?

Eventually, this level of pain and soreness fades away as the body responds to the stress of its harsh, new environment. This generally happens right around the early parts of preseason action, just as the weekday preparation begins to simulate more of an in-season structure.

As you can imagine, this process of body-strengthening has a lot of value. Players who miss this acclimation period are clearly at a greater risk of injury, because they’re abruptly forced into a higher level of physicality through full-speed, game-time situations.

Think of it like a boxer trying to go 12 rounds without doing any pre-fight sparring.  

Another significant benefit to training camp comes with the opportunities it provides for players to learn the system and build a rapport with teammates with whom they specifically may need to be on the same page. This is doubly true for players learning a new system or familiarizing themselves with new teammates.

As the chart below illustrates, wide receivers are especially vulnerable to struggle when missing training camp. This speaks to the importance of understanding the offense and being in sync with their quarterback.

In fact, no position aside from quarterback (not enough to sample) showed more of a dramatic decline in production than the wide receivers. It’s no wonder when you also consider that no other position in football is as dependent on teammates.

Team chemistry is a factor often overlooked yet critical to any successful team. It’s in those “dog days” of summer where you sweat, bleed and struggle with your teammates for weeks, all while being almost completely isolated from the outside world.

Through this hardship and sacrifice, key relationships are forged, respect is gained and trust in the guy next to you becomes the difference between a big win and a painful loss.

If an organization were to hold separate training camps for each positional group, it would be detrimental to the chemistry and trust of a football team, as well as its ability to function. This thought experiment, though extreme, can demonstrate the importance chemistry plays during this critical time of team development.

Training camp also provides several players each year with a unique chance to prove their worth by standing out among a talented crowd.

As a sixth-round draft pick, I was definitely one of those guys who needed to impress during camp in order to make the active roster. Fortunately, I somehow managed to pull it off—but not without getting more than my fair share of harassment from the coaching staff. I was voted "Most Yelled At" in camp by the local paper.

Courtesy of Bill Soliday via The Oakland Tribune

Personally, I could only imagine how difficult it would be trying to return from a long offseason, void of any contact or full gear, without the advantages of a training camp.

It seems nearly impossible for a guy without elite physical ability or an outstanding training regimen to play at a high level after missing such a critical period in the preparation process.  However, we are certainly not without recent examples of players thriving in those very situations.

Two excellent examples would be last year’s NFL MVP—running back Adrian Peterson of the Vikingsand NFL Defensive Player of the YearTexans defensive end J.J. Watt.

One noteworthy distinction here is that each player was indeed present and actively participating in mental preparation if nothing else, as opposed to being completely absent as is the case in a holdout.

Beyond the value and importance of training camp to success on the field, there’s one final element. The memories and lessons learned from those days will carry over with me in life. I am, and always will be, better for those experiences. There is no better time for revealing character than in times of adversity.

Well, training camp is the ultimate simulator of adversity.  

In conclusion, I leave you with an excerpt from my experiences of an NFL summer:

…In general, it may have been difficult, and I may have dreaded the thought of it, but I will still forever cherish those days out in the sun, smelling the freshly cut grass and looking up at the sky through my face mask.

Even then, I knew the view through those bars would one day be a distant memory, gone forever.

 

Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a contributor to Footballguys.com. Before B/R, Ryan played DE at the University of California. Afterward, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Avengers. 

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