Of all the words associated with football, perhaps none more perfectly encapsulates the sport. To subject one's self to voluntary physical, mental and emotional beatings day after day in practice, in theory, better prepares one to take on those same beatings the next day. Or in other words, it makes them tougher.
Improved identification and awareness of sports injuries and their effects in the 21st century has created a need to frequently evaluate every aspect of football. That includes practice, where 58 percent of high school football concussions occurred in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, according to a study by the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention.
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The KHSAA in April adopted new rules governing football designed to improve player safety. Chief among these changes was a limitation of contact hours during practice — from no defined limit to no more than 30 minutes in one day and 90 minutes in a week — and the application of USA Football terms to better describe ascending levels of allowable contact (see breakout box). The changes mostly follow National Federation of High Schools recommendations that were given to the KHSAA and other states' competition bodies last November.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association recently limited practice contact to 60 minutes in a week. In the college ranks, the Big 12 conference last week reduced the number of allowable live-contact opportunities — which includes games — to two times per week. The Ivy League and Pac-12 had previously placed the same limitations on their schools. Live contact is becoming minimal during NFL training camps.
Amid a sea change in the way football is played and practiced, is something lost in terms of building "toughness" in athletes who for so long have been held up as pillars of the word?
'A new age of football'
Many Kentucky coaches accept and embrace the new reality.
Dennis Johnson, about to start his first season at Woodford County, likes the steps the KHSAA has taken to help protect kids in an era where participation in football often extends beyond the high school season.
"This is a new age of football," Johnson said. "From when I played to now is totally different, the way kids are built. You kind of have to adapt. ... With these kids going to a lot of camps, they get a lot of bumps and bruises on their body. I understand the protection."
The Yellowjackets aren't lacking for a voice to help build mental toughness during practice. Johnson said he constantly preaches its value.
"Kids aren't mentally tough 'cause we don't make them mentally tough," he said. "One of the biggest things we talk about every day is being mentally tough and putting forth great effort."
Lexington Catholic's Mark Perry understands that society has changed since his high school and UK playing days. He said 7-on-7 scrimmages with other teams, the use of which has increased as full-contact practices have decreased, have been "really good" for his team's development and that he has a lot of tough kids.
"I think awareness is a positive thing for the kids and the safety of the sport," Perry said. "It's different but I still feel like on the football field on Friday nights last year we were as tough as any team we played."
Eric Shaw of Lafayette likened the practice changes to having to adjust on the fly during a game and knowing how to stay disciplined when outside forces try to affect your play.
"Just like referees on Friday night," Shaw said. "They make a call, whether it's good or bad it don't make no difference. We're just gonna line up and play the next play.
"These things that happen during the summer are just like a football game, just like life. You gotta learn how to be flexible and learn how to adjust."
How do you teach physicality?
Other coaches question the toughness of today's kids.
Paul Laurence Dunbar Coach Paul Rains is in his fourth decade of coaching. He noted a difference in the mentality of guys in his first 20 or so years of coaching and today.
"If nothing else, boys got out and played outside every single day and fell out of trees and jumped fences and played football," Rains said. "That's all you did. Kids don't do that as much anymore."
He admitted changes to his practice philosophy over time have been positive, though. He said there were things that he and his coaches used to do that "didn't make a lot of sense."
"We laugh about it all the time," he said. "Back when I was playing in the '70s you didn't give players water for the most part 'cause 'that made 'em tougher.' You'd give 'em salt pills instead. ...
"I did things to go out there and beat the absolute tar out of them. Then we'd get ready to play a ball game. Half the team's hurt 'cause you were trying to make 'em tougher and make 'em meaner."
Tom Larkey, now at Perry County Central in his 44th year of coaching, said his type of game — "power football" — requires a bit more physicality in practice than some other teams might need. Until Aug. 1, when coaches are allowed to implement Level 3 and Level 4 drills, Larkey said his team focuses on conditioning and building a strong mental attitude.
Air conditioning was a distant convenience in Larkey's time. Water was handed out once during practice, if at all. He was colorful in reminiscing about his playing days.
"We stuck our foot in a bucket of hot water if we had a sprained ankle and didn't miss practice for nothing," Larkey said. "We'd run 'til our doggone tongues fell out."
He believes some modern developments like water breaks are essential but thinks limiting full contact in practice has an adverse effect on players come game time.
"It don't matter how much you try to take away, you're gonna play on Friday night and you're gonna be getting hit," he said. "It's gonna get physical on Friday night so I don't see any reason why you can't teach 'em to get physical a little bit during practice."
Ethan Atchley, Lexington Christian's head coach, said some kids naturally sport a blue-collar attitude while others don't understand the hardships that others before them, like their parents, have overcome to get to where they are. He said it's his job to teach them the true meaning of adversity to help build toughness.
"Each and every day we're gonna try to put them in competitive situations to try and get that out of 'em," he said. "They gotta know when you step out here between the white lines nobody can help you and save you."
Is more physical or longer practice necessary for success?
Dudley Hilton, second in all-time wins behind Belfry's Philip Haywood and 3-0 in state championship appearances, said he limits practices to no more than 21/2 hours a day — frequently less — because the risk for injury is too great at county schools. He didn't do two-a-days at Bell County, Breathitt County and Bourbon County and isn't about to start at Taylor County, where he took over three games into last season after resigning at UPike.
"We're practicing one time a day, letting kids go home, do their work and do what they need to do to help their families survive," Hilton said.
And while rules have changed, new schemes have been introduced and philosophies have evolved, Hilton said the game at its core isn't different from when he first got involved in it.
"Basically it's the same as back when I played," he said. "It takes four downs to get a first down."