Thirty years ago, Steve Sell was the offensive coordinator for the Aragon football team. The summer leading up to the 1993 season was one he’ll never forget.
“From the last day of school, to the first day of practice (in August), I spent more than 50% of the days water skiing,” Sell said. “I counted it. I said, ‘This has just been an awesome summer!’”
Fast forward to 2022 and Sell is setting up 7-on-7 practice sessions with other schools, working with linemen, and opening and working in the weight room.
Football coaches used to put the lack of club football for the development of players. While football will probably never reach the heights of AAU basketball, travel baseball and club soccer, it is certainly a much more year-round sport than it has ever been. As the game has become more sophisticated and players more willing to specialize in football, the pressure for teams to offer more support and training has increased over the years.
It used to be the sole domain of the high school coach. But since the COVID pandemic, there has been a proliferation in the development of travel-team passing leagues — events where skilled offensive players go up against the skills players on defense. It’s a high-flying, no-tackle, exciting brand of football. That has gone hand-in-hand with college and private camps, at which players can be evaluated for recruiting purposes, as well as the increase in private football coaches.
All of which is a very thin line between doing what is best for the athlete and doing what is best for the team.
“There are a lot of competing forces for time and energy. It is certainly different from five years ago,” said Menlo-Atherton head football coach Chris Saunders. “As long as a player and family understand [these leagues and camps are a] supplement and not how they’re going to prepare for the season, it’s a great asset.
“Football is not a cone drill. But yet, cone drills and other agility training are designed to be supplemental to the athleticism. The whole thing has to fit together.”
Both Sell and Saunders see a big difference between joining your school teammates for a 7-on-7 match against another local school. Saunders said he has something set up with Palo Alto and Hillsdale next week.
But when a player chooses a club team over the school team, that’s where Saunders has to draw the line.
“There are tradeoffs,” Saunders said. “If a kid came up to me and said, ‘I’m not going to be at practice because I have (private) training, that’s not going to work,’ Saunders said. “We got better as a team going against [St. Ignatius earlier this week]. But it was 100% about what we do and how we do it.”
Both Saunders and Sell believe that coaches have to protect the players from themselves and they have to protect themselves from themselves, as well. While Selling no longer spends all summer at the lake, he is also not grinding his kids down, either.
“There are coaches who would go seven days a week if they could,” Sell said. “You want to be competitive and provide the best opportunity to thrive, but you have to balance it with some sanity.”
Saunders said training in the MA program is four days a week from January to August, and he tries to develop a schedule that sees the players peaking at the weekend, like they would strive to do during the regular season.
But Saunders said he will never have kids train on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, mostly to give everyone involved — players and coaches — some time off.
He also said he only schedules six or seven 7-on-7 events during the summer as a way to keep everyone involved without going overboard.
“I generally think it’s plenty. I think it’s good to have them once a week. It gives that game-week arc,” Saunders said. “Summer can be monotonous. You got to find that sweet spot. You can’t be all gas, no brakes.”
It’s that monotony that Sell believes is best alleviated with some kind of football action, instead just constantly working out.
And Sell does believe there are benefits to passing leagues and 7-on-7 games.
“It is good. Because of the proliferation of the spread offense and how much more teams throw the ball, even if you’re a team that runs the ball … you’re going to have to be able to defend the pass,” Sell said. “You can evaluate personnel. And it’s fun. We love football. 7-on-7s are fun.”
And as summer football has evolved to much more active involvement, coaches and coaching staffs have come to the conclusion that if everyone else is doing it, they better be doing it to keep up.
Sell said he got a glimpse of the future in the mid- to late-1990s when then-Burlingame head coach John Gilmore and his head assistant Ed Larios, a former NFL player, offered a football camp through the Burlingame park and recreation department.
“They had the audacity to offer this one-week camp … and people thought it was the most outrageous breach of sportsmanship,” Sell said. “Looking back, credit to them. They were ahead of their time.
“It’s really fascinating to see the evolution of how summer has ramped up since the early 90s.”