Washington DC, USA
Tuesday 22nd April 2014

So after what seemed like a small lifetime to some (American) football fans, several of the teams are back into off-season training.

There are all sorts of rules & regulations governing training at this time of year, thanks in the main to the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

The main rules that are applicable to this training block are detailed below:

How long can a team spend in off-season training?  The bottom line is nine weeks but if a team has hired a new head coach since the end of last season, they can spend twelve weeks completing that block, whereas other teams can only allocate that time over ten weeks.  There is also no weekend working allowed during this time.

Is training compulsory?  No, the workouts are voluntary.  Whilst some players will have “workout bonuses” included in their contracts, others won’t but I would imagine very few will take the decision not to report in.

Is this a full training window?  No, there are certain rules & regulations governing who can lead the sessions, what type of work can be covered in this time & when.

How long can players spend in the facility?  Up until the organised team practice activity blocks, which are introduced after 5 weeks, players are not allowed to spend more than 4 hours a day & no more than 4 days per week (not at all on weekends) at the team’s training facility.  Of that, no more than 90 minutes may be spent on the training field & the team can only specify 2 hours in a given day that it “suggests” a player should be at the training ground.


David Fucillo, on, does a really good job of breaking down the timings of the training camp as it applies to the San Francisco 49ers & as such provides a good example of what can be expected:

Time Periods

The workout program involves nine weeks of work, but no weekend work. Teams get ten weeks to work in the nine weeks of the program. If a team has a new head coach, they get 12 weeks to complete the nine weeks of the program.

Phase 1: The first two weeks of the workout program. Limited to only strength and conditioning, and physical rehabilitation. Only full time or part-time strength and conditioning coaches, who have no other coaching responsibilities with the Club, are allowed on the field. 

No footballs can be used, except that quarterbacks may elect to throw to receivers provided they are not covered by any other player. Players cannot wear helmets during Phase 1.

Phase 2: This covers the next three weeks of the workout program. All coaches are allowed on the field. On-field workouts can include individual player instruction and drills, as well as the entire offense or entire defense on the field, but not offense vs. defense. This also includes special teams, meaning you can have the kicking or return team on the field, but not kicking vs. return.

No offense vs. defense drills are allowed, meaning no one-on-one OL vs. DL pass rush/pass protections drills, no WR vs/ DB bump-and-run drills. Players cannot wear helmets during Phase 2.

Phase 3: This covers the next four weeks of the workout program. During this period, teams can conduct up to ten days of organized team practice activity (OTAs) and a minicamp of no more than three days in length. For the 2014 San Francisco 49ers, that schedule breaks down as follows:

OTAs: May 27-29, June 2-3, June 5, June 9-10, June 12-13

Mandatory Minicamp: June 17-19

No one-on-one offense vs. defense drills permitted, but team offense vs. team defense dills are permitted. This includes 7-on-7, 9-on-7, and 11-on-11. Players can be required to wear helmets, but shells are not permitted. No live contact is permitted. (e.g. "live" blocking, tackling, pass rushing and bump-and-run).

Hours of work

Prior to the OTAs and minicamp, players may be at the facility no more than 4 hours per day, no more than 4 days per week, and not during weekends. 

They may not spend more than 90 minutes on the field per day. 

The team can only specify 2 specific hours in a given day during which is "suggests" that the player be at the club facilities. As I read that, they can plan 2 hours of specific times for meetings with position coaches or strength and conditioning coaches, but otherwise, it cannot be "pre-planned" to the hour.

For OTAs, players can be at the facility a maximum of 6 hours per day, with a maximum of 2 hours on the field for any given player.

Fucillo, D. (2014). Breaking down the NFL CBA: The offseason workout program.

This is a really interesting characteristic of (American) football, in that sports outside of the USA rarely have such a long practice schedule which precedes another break, where effectively the players do not really have a major performance objective to work towards.

Yes, it can be argued that this is a great time to get physical preparation work under the belt but in all honesty, there is more than enough time in the compulsory time away from the team between June (the end of the OTAs) & August (the start of pre-season) for the players to decondition again.

When I worked in rugby, we had a long pre-season (2 - 3 months) but this ran all the way through to the start of the competitive fixtures, so that you could work on a periodised conditioning programme to ensure that the players were at peak fitness when the games began.  This was absolutely necessary too, as the impact involved in the game demands players have adequate strength development & muscle mass to protect from injury as well as attain optimal performance.

In my opinion, the danger of having such a short pre-season in (American) football, is that those who aren’t organised can find themselves with insufficient time to recondition adequately once they return to their teams.  Consequently, they increase their risk of serious injury & staff are forced to continue with strength development work in-season, which compromises game recovery.

Is that just theoretical?  No, I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.  Not only that, but some of the most experienced names in the game consider that this issue has contributed to the increased epidemiology of injuries in the game over the last couple of years.

Last season, New England Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick was particularly vocal in pointing the finger at the CBA & the enforced reduction in training time for introducing a “gap between preparation & competition level”.

Farrar, D. (2013).  Bill Belichick attributes increased injuries to NFL offseason workout limits.

Whilst those in favour of the CBA argue that the rules were brought in to reduce the injury rates by enforcing rest periods, others like Belichick counter that, saying it just means players are less conditioned for the rigours of the season.

So what is the answer?  Well, despite the NFL denying that the statistics didn’t support Belichick’s observations, STATS Inc. reported that between 2000 & 2006, an average of 239 players finished the season on injured reserve, whereas this number has increased to an average in excess of 300 since then.  Whilst there may be a number of confounding variables that are colouring the picture, it’s fair to assume that there is an issue to address.

Some teams have now started to turn to the technologies widely used in soccer & rugby for a number of years to monitor the overall load placed on players.  Systems such as the Catapult GPS units have been utilised by 14 NFL teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars & Atlanta Falcons.  These organisations are often at the forefront of change in the league.

Selfert, K. (2014).  Technology could be NFL game-changer.

However, I am aware that issues that I observed in Thailand exist in some NFL teams.  The data is misinterpreted, or the data is correctly interpreted but the coaches aren’t interested, or the data is misused to suggest players aren’t pulling their weight in training.  Either way there are teams using all sorts of load monitoring technologies but that haven’t been successful in managing to inform the nature of the practice sessions run by the coaches.   

Whilst some teams are using this data well, it is a trap that I have seen time & again in many sports, that the money is spent on equipment fads rather than on the human resources that would be far more valuable.  In my opinion, the biggest investment needs to be made in expanding the man power in the medical services & sports science departments, first & foremost.  

Employ more strength & conditioning coaches to enable staff to write individualised programmes for the players; employ more science staff to monitor load & stress more efficiently; employ more clinical staff to enable individualised injury prevention strategies to be followed, whilst permitting more one to one treatment sessions to facilitate treating injuries in a holistic manner, thus reducing the risk of recurrence.

Yes, in an ideal world you would have both the cutting edge equipment & the human resources but if you have to choose one of the two to fit the budget, then it’s a no brainer.  

From my experience, the Seahawks, with Sam Ramsden at the helm of performance are on the right track in the west, whilst in the east, James Harris at the Eagles has been instrumental in assembling a science team of strong repute including sports science coordinator, Shaun Huls & conditioning coach, Josh Hingst.

Vrentas, J. (2013).  Chip Kelly’s Mystery Man.

What’s more, the traditional model of the players leaving the club at the end of the training block & returning home to train with their local “go to guy” needs to change.  In the English Premier League, clubs would never dream of letting their most valuable assets be treated or conditioned by someone they knew nothing about, employing a programme they had no hand in writing.

Look at it this way, if you owned a Ferrari, would you leave the keys in it & park it, door open on the street corner for any old Joe to come & drive it around, showing it off to his mates for two months?  I wouldn’t & yet at the moment, that is effectively what happens in the majority of franchises - NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL.  I’ve been to some of these training camps, with big reputations & been appalled at the standard of work being performed - no this may not be representative of all of them but they were ones with big name players paying big bucks to attend.

The more forward thinking teams are starting to wise-up.  Yes the players may go home for large portions of time, but now team staff will be out to visit them to continue treatment or ensure adherence to conditioning programmes.  While the CBA stipulations are so restrictive, that really has to be the way forward.  

Teams should be looking at player to staff ratios - the marines did a study to show that one man can only effectively manage 3 others.  Surely it wouldn’t be too crazy to think that each member of the sports medical services & science department could be assigned 4 - 5 players to act as their point of contact.  Then according to the needs of the player in the off-season, an appropriate decision could be made as to who makes the house call…S&C professional, sports physiotherapist, or athletic trainer.

The other revision I would suggest is to rearrange the timings of the enforced periods away from the team.  Would it be wiser to have a longer continuous pre-season stretch & just increase the down-time after the season has finished?

Not only would pre-season be more effective & enable improved player conditioning but recovery from the physical & mental demands of the season could be enhanced.  

A report published in PLOS ONE by Jeffrey J. Bazarian, an associate professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry, suggests that 6 months off at the end of the season may not be long enough for the brains of the players to completely heal after a single season.

Orr, L. (2014).  Off-season doesn’t allow brain to recover from football hits, study says.

Would the introduction of a longer, sustained, monitored & moderated recovery period after the cessation of the season, give the players the best chance to regenerate & prepare for the next season?  It’s got to be worth a discussion.

For those of you currently working in the NFL, I would love to hear from you.  I have already spoken to several people that believe the structure needs to be reviewed & the changes discussed in this piece are some of a whole number that need to be considered.  

I’d also be interested to hear from players & their thoughts on how they have felt physically since the CBA changes were introduced.  Do you feel better prepared for a season or less prepared?

These are interesting times in American sport & I do believe that change is in the air…I just hope the changes are well thought out & the potential implications discussed by all parties with a willingness to consider all the information in order to reach the best conclusion.

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