After months of build-up, offseason practices, workouts and 7-on-7 tournaments, players from all over the county will take to the field today in preparation for the upcoming season. In the meantime, it will be just as important for coaches and players to learn the guidelines put in place to prevent athletes from suffering from heat-related problems.
“We lost two kids in Georgia to heat-related accidents during summer practice last year,” said Jeff Hopp, athletic trainer for Marietta City Schools and president of the Georgia Athletic Trainers Association. “Over the last 30 years, Georgia has had the most kids die from heat-related accidents in the country. It’s preventable and shouldn’t be happening at all.”
To curb the problem, the Georgia High School Association, in conjunction with University of Georgia researchers, recently completed a study on heat risks associated with high school athletics. The data, taken from 25 schools across the state and involving weather monitoring devices that determined levels of heat and humidity at ground level, was used to develop the current policies, procedures and guidelines put in place for coaches to use.
“The Korey Stringer Institute says Georgia’s policies are now one of the best in the country,” Hopp said, referring to the group named after a Minnesota Vikings player who died of complications from heat stroke in 2001. “UGA analyzed the data and presented its findings to a heat summit in January. Guidelines and policies were proposed to the GHSA that were later adopted in March. The safety of our children is of the utmost importance.”
In preparation for the first day of practice with full pads, players must have spent at least five formal practices — one per day for no more than three hours apiece — with only their helmets.
“The best way to prevent any accidents is to gradually acclimate kids to the heat, which takes about 14 days” Hopp said. “The five days of practice with just helmets started on July 25. They get used to the heat and the drills and to taking in water every day.”
The guidelines also state that two-a-day full-pad practices cannot exceed more than five hours a day. Furthermore, there must be at least three hours of continuous rest between practices and no one practice can last more than three hours.
If a team chooses to run a full two-a-day practice, then they cannot run another one on consecutive days. It must be followed by a single practice, a minimum three-hour rest period and one walkthrough practice.
When a two-a-day is followed by a rest day, then another two-a-day is permitted.
Warmups, stretching, cool-downs, walkthroughs, conditioning and weight-training are included as part of practice time.
“There have been lots of questions about the new policies, but there’s been very little pushback from coaches,” Hopp said. “They know how important these guidelines are, and they know kids might want to tough it out on the field for fear they’ll look weak, but coaches and athletic trainers need to be vigilant and watch for signs that a player may be overexerting himself and having problems.”
The weather-monitoring devices — wet-bulb meters — remain in use as well. The devices measure humidity, wind speed, solar radiation and actual air temperature as a wet-bulb globe temperature. Wet-bulb temperatures beyond 86 degrees require teams to have cold tubs on the field, ice towels, sponges and misters. Cold water should be available on the field at all times.
“Wet-bulb temperatures are a better indicator than the heat index,” Hopp said. “There’s a misconception that morning practices are safer for the kids because it’s not as hot. But the humidity, which also factors into practices, is mostly higher in the morning, so the morning is not always the best time to practice.
“Some trainers weigh kids before and after practice to measure how much water weight they’ve lost and determine how much they’ll need to gain back before the next practice.”
The GHSA’s guidelines are needed to maintain player safety and to prevent future heat-related accidents.
“Not all Cobb County schools have athletic trainers at football practices,” Hopp said. “Some schools only have one due to budget constraints. That needs to change.
“When you look at how much a child’s life is worth, it’s a shame it’s like that at some schools. Most coaches do a good job, but we should be doing better.”