By R. Alan Richardson
If you’ve ever wondered how football players in full pads out in the Georgia August heat survive, you’re not by yourself. There was once a day in time when water breaks, and breaks period during a two hour practice, were unheard of. In fact, it was thought by many coaches that water and periodic breaks were for sissies. Going without made you tougher. The rationing of salt pills during those times made it even that much more dangerous.
Today, the train of thought is all about player safety. We’ve all heard the horror stories surrounding the death of a player from heat stroke. Let’s hope that scenario never happens in Morgan County, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, but you can rest easier this summer knowing that the Bulldog staff in football and all other fall sports is doing everything possible to make sure your child does not become a victim of the problems associated with early season practices and heat.
The Georgia High School Association (GHSA) has issued guidelines and protocol for high schools to follow to prevent these types of injuries. They can be viewed at www.ghsa.net/practice-policy-heat-and-humidity.
Certified Athletic Trainer, Dennis Sitzmann, talked about the guidelines and his role as it pertains to the issue, “Heat illness and heat injury are the most preventable types of injuries there are. There are different types ranging from cramps, exhaustion, syncope (where you pass out), and the most dangerous, heat stroke. This is when your body temperature reaches around 106-107 degrees from a normal 98.6. What happens with heat stroke is your body loses its ability to lose heat due to environmental conditions.”
According to Coach Sitz, all the major precautions are taken during the day to make sure all the players are hydrated. They are encouraged to drink, drink, drink during the day and replace their electrolytes with potassium or sodium supplements. There are different ways to check players who may be prone to heat illness such as weigh-ins to insure that players are back up to weight the next day before practice. It’s a quantitative way to show they have rehydrated. Another sign could be a dark yellowish coloring of the urine. The darker the urine, the less they are hydrated. It’s an easy visual method of checking on the players.
During practices, the head trainer is not without helpers on the field. All coaches are made aware of the dangers associated with heat injury and even take online courses to insure they are up to speed on the latest education available to check for signs. He also has his hydration specialists. These are students that are very good at watching players who may be struggling with dehydration. Sitzmann said, “The girls and guys all know to come to me and let me know if one of the players looks like they are struggling. The players can get water at any point during practice from these kids. We also take periodic breaks depending on the conditions that day. If a player has had issues during practice like cramping, we will check on them after practice to recommend to the parents whether it might be necessary to take them for a bag of IV fluid if it’s serious or just watch for certain symptoms that night. Some kids need to supplement their diet with potassium or sodium pills, but most will typically get enough electrolytes through salting their food. These could be skill position players that are not only high concentration sweaters but also high concentration loss of electrolytes sweaters.”
Players today are bigger than in previous years. The 2016 line had two 300 pounders and another weighing in at 290. That wasn’t always true as players were leaner and more acclimated to the heat before the advent of air conditioning. Many of them also worked manual labor jobs on the farm during the summer heat. Sitzmann commented, “Kids are just bigger today. These were the ones that some of the guidelines were put in place for by the GHSA. I worry more about the big boys and the ones who haven’t been through summer workouts to get ready for the first four weeks of practices in pads. These are the kids I call the lowest common denominator. We’ve got a lot of eyes on them, but coaches are doing what they’re paid to do and that’s coach. They may not always be paying attention to those kids that haven’t been out here the whole time. That’s why we have the guidelines for water breaks per hour, other breaks, time of practice, whether to practice in pads or just t-shirts, or whether we call practices off completely. That doesn’t happen often.”
The Bulldogs have a special weather machine called a wet bulb globe temperature device to help them determine what restrictions need to be in place for that day of practice for ALL teams, even the band. Sitzmann sends out a text to all head coaches at the middle and high school that will be practicing that day after checking the readings on his machine. The wet bulb, as it’s called by most coaches, gives a reading for humidity, radiant energy of the sun, wind speed, wind chill, and ambient air temperature. These readings are formulated into a number that is used to make the decisions using the GHSA guidelines. Things have certainly changed.
The point here is that even though our youngsters come out of an air-conditioned building and get in an air-conditioned vehicle to get to practice, they are being carefully watched with some of the finest equipment and finest coaches available. It’s nice to know that our children are being cared for and not just thrown out there in full pads with no concern for their safety. In fact, that is the number one concern for those who you have allowed the opportunity and privilege of coaching your own.