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Tackling heat exhaustion on the practice field
Newton football players during a morning summer practice. - photo by Mariya Lewter

On July 22, it was reported that 12-year-old Johnny Tolbert, from south Fulton County, Georgia had brain damage after suffering a heat stroke during football practice at Welcome All Park. He reportedly collapsed around 7:30 p.m. during conditioning drills while it was 90 degrees outside, according to a report on WSB-TV.

This alarming news raises the question of how teams who practice in the heat prevent heat exhaustion and what guidelines are in place to ensure the safety of players.

“Right now, we’re in the GHSA acclimation period where it’s two hours of practice per day,” said head Eastside football coach Troy Hoff. “Regulations with that go with our GHSA heat policy.”

The Georgia High School Association (GHSA) has a practice policy for heat and humidity in its constitution and by-laws for the 2016-2017 year. According to the policy, “schools must follow the statewide policy for conducting practices and voluntary conditioning workouts (including during the summer) in all sports during times of extremely high heat and/or humidity that will be signed by each head coach at the beginning of each season and distributed to all players and their parents or guardians.”

The policy provides guidelines for “the scheduling of practices at various heat/humidity levels, the ratio of workout time to time allotted for rest and hydration at various heat/humidity levels and the heat/humidity levels that will result in practice being terminated.”

The policy states various guidelines for rest breaks throughout practices and activities. For example, coaches are required to provide “at least three separate rest breaks each hour with a minimum duration of three minutes each during the workout.”

Within the policy, coaches are also required to use instruments that measure the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), or the measure of heat stress in direct sunlight. The WBGT takes into account factors like temperature, humidity, sun angle and cloud cover.

Teams have trainers that monitor the WBGT, telling them how many water and rest breaks are needed and when it is unsafe to practice outside.

“Depending on what the wet bulb readings are, it will be x amount of minutes of rest per minutes of work during the practice,” Hoff said. “Obviously a lot of hydration, also. Our guys are drinking water all day. You just kind of monitor it.”

Being in the south, summer temperatures can get extremely high. On the other hand, some times of the day are considerably cooler than others. Coaches can choose to move practices around based on those times.

“We move practice up to 5 p.m. just so we can have a little more smooth transition,” Hoff said. “It’s still hot, but the wet bulbs drop quite a bit from 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. You just have to monitor them. That’s the biggest thing.”

Newton holds football camps during the summer from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. According to head coach Terrance Banks, they provide breakfast and lunch to players, which has helped to lower their risk of heat exhaustion.

“Our guideline, especially in the summer, is if a kid says that he’s not feeling it, we pull him out,” Banks said. “We have less of those now that we feed our kids breakfast and lunch than we have had in the past. A lot of that was from not eating in the morning. Now that we know they’re eating, we’ve had less occurrences of kids complaining about heat.”

Football players are not the only people who practice outside during the summer months. Band members also practice in the heat; sometimes in full uniform.

“Plenty of water breaks is important,” said Eastside band director Alan Fowler. “Based on what the weather is doing, we may alter our evening schedule. We try to be inside in the air conditioning as much as possible in the afternoons because I’ve got good sense.”

Fowler, who recently held band camp a week prior to the start of school, says the key is to hydrate early.

“I think the biggest one is that we encourage the kids early to be drinking water, because it’s not when you get overheated that you really need to start drinking water,” he said. “You need to hydrate. Every message I send out prior to band camp includes, ‘hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.’ You want to be smart.”