With the mandate over the last couple of years that all teams are required to play at least one Thursday game (and some teams playing more), advances on how to prepare for those games have come in many forms.
Roughly 100 hours go by if you play a normal Sunday midday game before a team has to play again. That’s crazy to think about when you consider all that goes on into a typical NFL week, let alone an expedited one. Consider taking your weekly job duties and being asked to do that in roughly one-third of the time. That’s our timeframe that we are considering here. If you fly home from an away game and then have a Thursday game, the timeframe is even worse.
Traveling can be a huge disadvantage
I once worked a Thursday night game when I was working for the Eagles where we traveled to Seattle to play. Crossing three time zones after playing a game three days before was just nuts. We got waxed, bad. Our players just had nothing in them. There is a reason that the league no longer schedules teams more than two time zones away on a Thursday—it just is not fair. The home team already has a huge advantage, and the stats support this.
First, let’s consider practice. While every team does it differently, there really is no practice on short weeks, just sped-up walkthroughs. Most NFL players will tell you that their bodies don’t begin to recover from a Sunday game until at least Tuesday. On a short week, all the practice is done by Tuesday. There simply is no way to hold a “normal” practice and be productive with it, as the player’s bodies can’t handle it. So, practice is a little shorter and more concise, done at a quick speed, usually without helmets or even pads. Monday will typically be a light walkthrough, Tuesday a bit longer, Wednesday just a morning recap of what happened the two days previous. That’s it! That’s all you have time for. It’s crazy to think about.
I won’t begin to go into any details about the coaching side of things since that department is not my expertise. Just know that all coaching staffs work ahead for weeks on this week because they know they will have very little time Monday through Thursday. Meetings are simplified, and the game plan is typically condensed. There is very little sleep had by anyone this week in football operation.
Packing and physical preparation
Packing and physical game prep is a tornado. Again, take what you do over six days and compress it into two and a half and that is what you have. Packing and prepping the stadium must be done ahead of Wednesday. The medical supplies don’t restock themselves!
Every team travels with a plethora of packing trunks on wheels that must be unpacked and repacked every week. Lists have to be checked and trunks stocked meticulously. When you are working on a handful of hours of sleep each day for four days straight, making sure a packing list is correct isn’t the easiest thing in the world. When in a home game situation, packing is easier due to the fact that you know you have reserves set up at the stadium most likely. Packing for an away Thursday game is insanity since the trunks must be ready the day before you leave to be loaded on trucks headed to the plane. That’s a complete set of game gear turned in two days. Some teams travel with more than 100 trunks total if you consider all departments.
The most important part of preparing for Thursday night
Oh, and by the way, there are also players to take care of. Recovery.
Plain and simple, this is the most important part of this week. It is always critical, but this week it is paramount. A player who suffers any kind of significant injury on the Sunday preceding most likely will not play in an upcoming Thursday game. The timeframe just is not long enough. Players who make it through the game healthy have a tough enough time making it.
Recovery starts immediately after the game on Sunday with many teams utilizing IV fluids after the game Sunday. Hydration is so vital for recovery, so any advantage a player can get to aid that process is beneficial. Fluid levels will be monitored throughout the week via specific gravity measurements and anyone that has trouble bouncing back will be aided with further fluids.
Other things to consider are lots of lactic acid reduction tactics. Lactic acid is the byproduct of strenuous muscle work. Consider it being muscle waste. It’s buildup in your body is normal after any workout or game. Getting it out of your system, specifically legs, through compression devices or soft tissue work can aid in recovery immensely. In a normal week, you have time to take care of this appropriately. In short weeks, players live in compression boots, cryotherapy chambers, hyperbaric chambers and cold tubs. All of this again starts immediately after the previous game.
Short-week conditioning is also a factor. Many players need to run or do cardio weekly to prepare for games. Typically, this is taken care of inside the lines at practice. During a short week, since practice is so condensed and slowed down, players must seek alternatives to this. Many use aquatic treadmills or swim. Some also take advantage of Alter-G treadmills, which allow you to get good cardio work in at a reduced weight-bearing level. Hence you get all the work without the pounding on your joints that are still recovering.
Rehab on a short week is intense. It truly is all hands on deck for the players that are going to make it to the game. Priority must be given to people that have a realistic shot of playing. It’s a cruel reality, but if you aren’t going to make it, they can wait until Friday to be shown any measurable amount of attention. By Tuesday afternoon, you typically know who is going to make it and who won’t. Some conditions such as contusions and minor strains/sprains have a shot—everything else is tough.
The night before the game
For home games, the stay at the hotel the night before is a welcome rest for all. This may be the first time that many staff members have slept well since the game Sunday. The same holds true for away games, but you have the added bus ride/flight/bus ride dynamic of getting to the away hotel.
Since we have previously stated that problem of swelling when someone flies, consider players who have not fully recovered from a game on Sunday and are still stiff, sore and swollen hopping on a plane and flying. Flying also dehydrates you, so add that to the mix. Think that helps their performance? Recovery for the team playing away is intensified to another level.
I can’t say that I ever enjoyed being a part of Thursday games—just the mini bye week that comes after that allows you to catch your breath. Only then can you truly start to put the pieces back together from the previous 10 days.
Aaron Borgmann is the founder of Borgmann Rehab Solutions. He spent 12 years in the NFL as an assistant athletic trainer and physical therapist before joining Arrowhead Pride.