Athletic organizations like the Georgia High School Association are hopeful that football players will stay safe this summer as coaches adhere to heat and humidity guidelines on the gridiron.
With the “heat dome” affecting more than 100 million Americans last weekend, upward of 1 million high school football players are heading back to the fields this week and next for preseason practices. But training often coincides with late July and August’s cocktail of high heat and humidity—and that can be a dangerous combination for student athletes.
Last week the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a 12-year-old boy is on life support after collapsing on an Atlanta football field. His collapse comes after the area experienced 43 consecutive days of at least 90-degree temperatures.
“Exertional Heatstroke (EHS) is the leading cause of preventable death in high school athletics,” according to the National Federation of State High School Associations [PDF]. And football players have historically borne the brunt of the fatalities: According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research [PDF], 35 high school football players have died of EHS between the years 1995 and 2010.
In an effort to prevent EHS deaths and other heat-related illnesses among high school athletes, the Georgia High School Association established specific regulations for high school coaches to follow on days when heat and humidity are high.
“We worked with a group of coaches and staff at the University of Georgia and devised some rules and regulations that would limit what coaches could do,” said Gary Phillips, executive director of GHSA.
The policy requires that every high school in the state measure the heat and humidity with the same device—a WetBulb Globe thermometer—which takes into account the heat, as well as the humidity, wind speed, sun angle, and solar radiation. And coaches have to measure the WetBulb Globe Temperature before the practice and then every 30 minutes during the practice to ensure that the WBGT isn’t rising to unsafe levels. If it does reach a certain threshold, coaches should modify the practice accordingly.
“There should not be a head coach in this state that should not be intimately acquainted to these rules,” Phillips said.
The regulations also include an acclimatization period, which allows high school football players to adjust to the atmospheric conditions and physical activity progressively. For instance, during the first weeks, coaches are limited to two-hour practices, in which players wear helmets but no pads. Mandatory hydration breaks are yet another part of the policy. Schools were also asked to pull parents into the loop, giving them the information on the heat-illness regulations.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Phillips said. “Once these policies were put in place, we’ve had good compliance. The [high school] coaches are keenly aware, and most parents are keenly aware [of the regulations].”