After a tentative start to 2018, last Sunday’s fixture at Coventry Jets saw the Nottingham Caesars American Football team step onto the field with a renewed focus and determination, securing a 28 - 0 victory. It’s still early days though, and with a re-match on home turf later in the month, they’re buckling down and making every training hour count.
As the longest running team in their division, NFC1 (S), you could be forgiven for assuming the squad is comprised of human tanks; this is Notts though, not New England. While they aren’t a small gang, skill and perseverance can often prove equally as valuable as size at a grassroots level.
Of course, that’s not to say you shouldn’t put in a bit of overtime with the odd kettlebell; working on strength and conditioning outside of team sessions plays a vital part in preventing injury and gaining a competitive edge. Linebacker Ashley “Bash” Matthews describes his current programme: “I go to the gym three or four times a week alongside training. I also try and get at least one or two cardio sessions in a week, at the minute my go to is spin or cycling.”
Defensive Coordinator, Mike Holden, is however all too aware of the difficulties that individuals face trying to get the life/training balance right, and how this impacts coaching: “The main challenge is getting people to turn up regularly; it’s hard to commit time when you have a job and family.” He recalls physicality and the camaraderie as being key to his own enjoyment of the sport: “We have to make training something people feel they can’t miss.”
Undeniably though, there’s a lot more to be gained from a Caesar’s training session than you’d get from slogging it out in the gym six out of seven days. Even if you can only commit a handful of hours a week, it’s a great way to improve fitness surrounded by people who have similar values and goals.
Increasingly, in fact, studies are noting a correlation between engagement in team sports and wellbeing, with evidence to suggest that participants build self-confidence, self-awareness and resilience. Likewise, contact sports such as American Football are universally considered to be an effective outlet for stress.
Still, it just be challenging to find a harmony between the violence that gameplay generates and the need to execute effective plays as a group. Matthews suggests that an aggressive approach is vital on offence, as long as a player maintains a level head: “You have to be able to manage aggression much better than defense. Offense runs on rhythm, timing and precision.”
“Defence is a whole different kettle of fish” he argues. “You need to play right on the line of aggression and losing control. Every single play you want to dominate the guy in front of you and punish the offense.”
So, how exactly do players manage these demands and continual fluctuations in pace? Quarterback Dr Simon Denning cites mindfulness as a useful technique that allows him to “declutter the mind and focus”.
In addition to this, Robert Hardwick, Defensive Back, advocates the benefits of a pre-game ritual, such as watching inspirational videos to get pumped up before hand. When he gets to the stadium the tempo changes: “I like to be quiet in the changing room. I rarely speak at length to people. I listen to music whilst getting changed and stay quite reflective and introverted.”
With a relatively short season of ten fixtures, this kind of focus is essential on any given Sunday. But what about the long-team goals? The Nottingham Caesars have had a presence on the UK scene for over three decades; it stands to reason that an essential feature in their operation is an annual recruitment program.
Dubbed the Rookie Camp, this intake period runs at the beginning of each calendar year and provides opportunity for potential new players to loan kit, test out positions and benchmark their fitness alongside the veteran players.
Dr Denning returned to the team this season after a four year spell playing flag, and has noted the improvement in the quality of the sessions: “There was more structure and better coaching. It definitely inspired me to get fitter again.”
The UK’s flourishing Uni Ball league provides yet another avenue into the adult game. Both universities compete, with Nottingham recently topping their division. Matthews recalls the fledgling teams adopting a very basic game in the formative years, for the most part revolving around a power run game. As the seasons went on, however, they began to adapt: “By the time I graduated teams had started to move towards the more pro style offense you see around the league today.”
And if the Notts American Football scene wasn’t enthralling enough, we should probably mention the Caesars under 19s. The long established junior team recently saw players Benjamin Conley and Jordan Fearon-Lee called up to the GB squad. With players of this caliber waiting in the wings, it would be fair to say that the Nottingham Caesars’ future looks well and truly secured.
Nottingham Caesars v Coventry Jets, Harvey Hadden Sports Village, Sunday 20th May.