The heat is on

Fall sports teams take extra precautions to ensure player safety in extreme temperatures

By: Jason Carmel Davis | C&G Newspapers | Published August 6, 2012

 When practicing and playing in extreme temperatures, it’s important for high school athletes to drink plenty of fluids and cool off as often as possible to reduce the risk of a heat illness occurring.

When practicing and playing in extreme temperatures, it’s important for high school athletes to drink plenty of fluids and cool off as often as possible to reduce the risk of a heat illness occurring.

File photo by Erin Sanchez

Safety first
With practices now open for all fall sports, players and coaches will be exposed to extreme temperatures throughout fall practice and parts of the season.

Here are the symptoms of various types of heat illnesses. Coaches, teammates and parents should be on the lookout for these symptoms:
• Heat stroke: hallucination, seizure, dizziness, headache, dry skin and chills.
• Heat exhaustion: heavy sweating, fatigue, nausea and muscle cramps.
• Heat syncope (fainting): light headedness, dizziness and fainting.
• Heat cramps: muscle pain or spasms, usually in the abdomen, arms or legs.
• Heat rash: skin irritation.
— Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, 35 high school football players died of exertional heatstroke (EHS) between 1995 and 2010.

To help ensure player safety when teams practice and play in extreme heat, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), of which the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) is a member of, has placed an increased emphasis on heat acclimatization and heat illness prevention in an effort to minimize the risk of participating in high school athletics, according to a July 5 statement released by the NFHS.

Practice for MHSAA fall sports began Aug. 6 with football. Cross country, girls golf, boys soccer, girls swimming, tennis and volleyball begin Aug. 8.

Athletes who participate in high-intensity, long-duration or repeated same-day practices during the summer months have the greatest risk of suffering EHS, according to the NFHS.

“Heat and hydration, those are things that if you do the right things and attack them the right way, you’re just going to have a much better experience,” said Geoff Kimmerly, MHSAA media and content coordinator.

“It may be a message that’s been out there for a while, but it’s just as relevant now. We’re always going to make that a big issue because it’s not only something important, but it’s very preventable.”

In a Points of Emphasis report released this spring, the NFHS found that EHS is the leading cause of preventable death in high school athletics.

“All heat illnesses are caused by dehydration and excessive loss of salt and fluids. The mildest form of heat illness is known as heat cramps, which occur when athletes do not drink enough fluids while exercising,” said Dr. Joseph Guettler, an orthopedic surgeon who practices out of Bingham Farms and is active in teaching and research with Beaumont Hospital and Oakland University.

“Heat exhaustion is a more serious injury that is triggered by excessive sweating and inadequate fluid replacement. Heatstroke is the most serious heat illness and can be life threatening,” added Guettler, who specializes in sports medicine.

Guettler added that medical assistance should be sought immediately if a person who has been overexposed to heat is seriously fatigued, cramping, disoriented or beginning to lose consciousness.

Coaches take precautions
Local coaches say they’re doing all they can to ensure no cases of EHS occur on their watch.

Farmington High School football coach John Bechtel said there have been no cases of EHS in the 15 years he’s headed the Falcons’ staff. He said players are weighed before and after each practice. If any player loses more than three percent of his body weight during practice, he’s kept out of practice until that weight is gained back.

Bechtel and Ferndale High School football coach Ryan Dunlap said they implement flexible water breaks during practice.

“And we allow (players) to rest whenever they need it,” said Dunlap, who is going into his seventh year as coaching the Eagles.

Dunlap, who also weighs players before and after each practice session, said he employs cold towels, a mist system and cold whirlpools for players during practices, which are held later in the day, so players aren’t on the field when the temperature is at its apex.

Bechtel’s players do practice when the temperature is at its hottest. However, if the temperature becomes unbearable, practice is moved to the gym, the Farmington coach said.

“We’ve got to get our practices in, but not at the risk of the players’ health,” Bechtel said. “Heaven forbid anything happen to the kids.”

Dunlap said that running drills without pads and helmets is an option when the heat rises.

Staying hydrated and what to do
Henry Ford Macomb Dr. Rim Kreit, a family medicine physician, said it’s best for athletes to drink water during practice and sports drinks, such as Gatorade, at the conclusion of each session.

Kreit, who works out of Macomb Township, said the carbohydrates in Gatorade are needed to replace electrolytes and sodium lost by performing excessive exercise and sweating profusely.

“And most kids won’t drink a lot of plain water,” Kreit said. “So the sports drink, with its flavor and taste, will entice the players to drink more of it.”

If someone is suffering from overexposure to heat, Guettler said, they should be moved to a cool place out of the sun, and their body should be cooled off with cool sponges or towels.

In most cases, Guettler said, their symptoms should improve shortly. If not, medical assistance is needed immediately.

“(Coaches) just have to be careful and make sure players are given time to rest,” Kreit said. “I think it’d even be best if the practices were held early in the morning or later in the day.”

Keep a close eye on the athletes, log on for more info
It’s important for parents and family members to monitor players at home, too.

Parents should make sure their kids continue to drink fluids, such as water or sports drinks. Caffeine should not be consumed because it works to dehydrate you faster, Guettler said.

Because players do lose weight when practicing and playing in extreme temperatures, Guettler recommends parents ensure their children drink two to three cups of water for every pound lost.

In an additional step taken to reduce the risk of heat illnesses, the NFHS, as part of its Coach Education Program, has produced a free online course that provides information designed to minimize the risk of activity-related heat illnesses. The course can be found at

“Many times, deaths from heat stroke are preventable, and we believe this course can be just the tool that players, coaches and parents need to guard against serious illness or death,” NFHS Director of Coach Education Tim Flannery said in a statement.