Throughout the last month, news reports from all over the country have been packed with reports of devastating heat waves. Nearly every nook and cranny of the country has experienced its fair share of triple-digit temperatures, and while the mercury has dropped a bit in the Northeast and Midwest, Georgia is still mired in the South’s unique climate of sticky, unrelenting summer heat.
Such temperatures can be dangerous for those doing nothing more than getting along with their daily routines, but the sauna-like conditions can pose a dangerous and even deadly threat — as Georgia has tragically found on three occasions in the last two years — for high school football players strapping on their pads and hitting the practice field.
In order to create the safest environment possible for its players, the Georgia High School Association voted this spring and adopted new practice policies to be used on hot days. In addition to obvious precautions such as mandated breaks, shaded areas and cold water to be provided at practices, the GHSA also is mandating that a wet bulb temperature must be recorded frequently, with steps of action to be taken in accordance with the reading.
The wet bulb reading differs from a normal thermometer in that it accounts for levels of moisture in the air instead of relying solely on the temperature of the air itself. Ultimately, it is the levels of moisture inside of athletes that these precautions look to preserve.
“Dehydration is the biggest concern for athletes in the kind of heat that we have in Statesboro,” Georgia Southern athletic trainer Jon Erwin said. “Losing too much water can lead to muscle cramps, and if athletes aren’t monitored or treated correctly, that can escalate to heat exhaustion or even heat stroke.”
In order to curtail these serious conditions, the GHSA is mandating different steps to be taken as the wet bulb temperature rises.
The wet bulb reading is a combination of air temperature, combined with dew point readings. While wet bulb readings will be lower than the forecasted high temperature for the day, the lower numbers should be taken just as seriously and can give a better warning as to when a hot summer day becomes too dangerous for fully-padded athletes to be toiling away in the sun.
Regardless of the wet bulb reading, all teams must provide at least three breaks — lasting 3 minutes each — per hour. At wet bulb readings of 82-86.9 degrees, teams may conduct practices at their own discretion, but must stretch breaks to 4 minutes and include a fourth break each hour.
From 87-89.9 degrees, practices will be limited to two hours and no equipment but helmets and shoulder pads may be worn. Additionally, players must take off their helmet and shoulder pads if conditioning exercises such as long runs or sprints are implemented.
“Shedding equipment is key to keeping cool,” Erwin said. “Every layer of clothing and padding adds to heat building up and a player’s core temperature rising. Putting on all of those pads can create a sauna inside of your body.”
At wet bulb temperatures ranging 90-91.9 degrees, practices will be limited to one hour, no equipment may be worn and no conditioning activities will be allowed. Anything over 92 degrees and no outdoor practice will be permitted.
“These are definitely good policies to have in place,” Portal coach David NeSmith said. “I think that a lot of schools were already using similar practices, but it’s good to have something concrete in place. Practice is important, but the safety of these kids has to come first.”
While current temperatures in the Bulloch County area have gone down a bit from the sweltering temperatures that were experienced earlier this month, coaches should anticipate having to enact some form of the new policy’s mandates on a nearly daily basis.
July 25 marks the first day that organized practices are allowed for Georgia high schools. Pads may be worn beginning Aug. 1 and teams will be in full practice mode until the first games scheduled for Aug. 24.
From July 25 through Aug. 24 last year, all but one day saw wet bulb readings rise above 82 degrees in the Statesboro area. The readings never exceeded the 92-degree limit for shutting down practices, but topped 90 degrees on nine occasions.
“It’s something that we’re prepared for,” Southeast Bulloch athletics director and defensive coordinator Jack Webb said. “It’s hot here every year. We know it’s coming and we realize that there will be some days where we might have to change our plans a little. We have things that, as a coaching staff, we want to accomplish during those first practices, but these rules are here to keep everyone safe and that has to be the first step.”
Constant monitoring of the weather conditions is a great way to foresee potential danger coming, but tabs should also be kept on individual athletes.
Erwin and the rest of the GSU training staff have greater resources and technology at their disposal to keep their players cool and safe, but there is one simple tool that every high school athlete can easily use to track their health.
“It doesn’t take any technology or time to keep a weight chart,” Erwin said. “At our practices, every athlete has to weigh in and weight out before and after practices. It’s a simple and very effective way to keep track of what is being taken out of them through each practice.”
This fact isn’t lost on area high schools, which take care of their players on the field and also stress that their athletes look after themselves off the field.
“We always tell our guys to stay in shape and healthy,” NeSmith said. “We’ve been in the weight room and outside conditioning since May. A lot of that is to get stronger, but it also acclimates us to the heat and it teaches our players how to take care of their bodies in these conditions.
At Southeast Bulloch, staying hydrated and healthy is a school-wide effort.
“We preach a good diet to our players all the time,” Webb said. “When school is back in, our teachers also help out. They’ll encourage our athletes to drink a lot of water and will report to us if something doesn’t look right.”
Ultimately, beating the Georgia heat is all about vigilance. No matter how much ice or water is on hand, blazing temperatures will always pose a threat to athletes and there is no way to practice without taking all of the risks out of the picture. As practices get under way next week, fighting the effects of the heat will be just as big a task as getting the game plan ready for the first game of the season.
“This is all just a part of the process,” NeSmith said. “We’re going to take all of the necessary precautions and keep our guys safe. After that, we’re going to get ready to go win some games.”
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.