The North Coast football season does not officially begin until Aug. 11 but that does not mean football isn’t being played at nearly every high school in the area.
Teams have been lifting weights, running sprints and executing position drills for much of the summer well before the first sanctioned practice next month.
“We want them to be physically fit so we condition them. And conditioning them makes them better athletes but it also keeps them from getting injured,” said veteran coach Ed Conroy of Rancho Cotate High School. “I think because of that, we have lessened the injuries we have because kids are in better shape when August double days roll around. To me, it’s vital for the kids.”
It’s been 11 years since the North Coast Section lifted many of the restrictions on off-season football workouts, leaving schools to monitor their own summer programs. The results, coaches say, are fitter athletes better prepared for the rigors of the sport. But some wonder whether the intense focus might be too much for some kids.
“Personally, I have real mixed feelings,” said Jan Smith Billing, assistant commissioner of the North Bay League. “From a safety standpoint, it’s good that kids come into their sport basically in shape and coaches can right away start working on strategies.”
“I just kind of worry about overuse of kids,” she said.
The current rules are relatively straightforward — as long as the school district or principal approves, practices can be held but cannot be mandatory.
Under a new law that goes into effect Jan. 1, full-contact workouts will be banned in the offseason. But many area coaches say they don’t use summer workouts to get kids hitting each other but rather hitting the weights, working on position-specific skills and conditioning.
It wasn’t always this way.
When Conroy started coaching nearly 30 years ago, coach oversight over the summer was minimal.
The result was some athletes would show up in August in top shape and others struggled to hang on during intense sessions of two-a-day practices that are the norm among football squads in the early season.
It is the kids who are most fit who avoid injury, said Calistoga High’s football coach Paul Harrell.
“Definitely for those who take advantage of it, knock on wood, those are the players that seem to have the least injury,” he said. “Just the strengthening. It’s a violent sport . . . putting that extra muscle on is to cushion all the tissue and bones and ligaments and all that.”
In 2003, the North Coast Section board of managers voted 18-11-2 to let schools and districts manage their own summer training programs. The vote was “contentious,” according to Gil Lemmon, North Coast Section athletics commissioner.
“It allowed schools to make the decision whether they would allow coaches to sponsor activities during the summer time,” he said. “If a school or school district said ‘Yeah, our coach can,’ they are not in violation of North Coast Section policy.”
“It’s true there can be an extraordinary amount of time weight training and working out,” he said. “On the same token, having a place for kids to go and associate with coaches we believe are good people . . . We want our kids to have good role models. I think those are all pluses.”