Schools focus on athletes’ safety in heat

Published 12:06 am Sunday, August 6, 2006

As temperatures across Georgia hover in the 90s, school athletic practices are focused as much on hydration and taking breaks as they are on learning how to pass the ball.

“It’s a new ball game now — coaches have to be aware of what’s going on with the heat,” said Roosevelt Coleman, athletic director at Johnson High School in Savannah, Ga.

Tuesday was the first official day of football practice season under Georgia High School Association rules. All practices before then were voluntary workouts.

Most practices are early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the day’s hottest hours. At many schools, practice moves indoors when the temperature rises to 95 degrees.

Football players shed pads, helmets and uniforms on hot days and practice in just T-shirts and shorts. Some schools provide tents on the sidelines to shade the players.

And water. Lots of it.

Safety is fresh in many coaches’ minds as Rockdale County High School mourns 15-year-old Tyler L. Davis, who died Tuesday after suffering heat stroke following a voluntary football practice a day earlier. The outdoor practice was about two hours long, with frequent water breaks.

The rising junior became at least the fifth football player nationwide to die this summer from heat-related problems.

On Wednesday, a Paulding County high school football player was treated and released from a hospital after passing out following the first official practice at his high school, WSB Radio reported. The Hiram High School player collapsed around 5 p.m. as the team finished an hour-long workout in the summer heat.

While some states like Texas have adopted statewide safety guidelines, the Georgia High School Association leaves such strategies up to each school system, said assistant director Gary Phillips.

“What works in the mountains in Blairsville does not work on the plains of Valdosta,” Phillips said.

In Cobb County, coaches use a thermometer that measures temperature relative to humidity before each practice to determine whether it’s too hot to practice.

The Atlanta public schools held a clinic Monday for coaches to meet with Emory University sports medicine experts about safety in the heat, spokesman Joe Manguno said. The system has held workshops since March to get coaches ready for the sweltering summer days, he said.

Atlanta schools also have a “self-police” policy where players who feel affected by the heat can take a break during practice without the coach’s permission and without consequence, Manguno said. The system’s athletic department will send inspectors out to do spot checks of practices to make sure coaches are following guidelines, he said.

Ronnie Millen, football coach at Atlanta’s Grady High School, has kept his players practicing indoors for the last two days because the sweltering heat has been too much to run drills outside. Before he let his players practice Wednesday, Millen first took a heat index measurement to determine if it was safe to practice outside.

“I would rather not be as prepared than lose a kid,” Millen said.

Millen said he also makes his players drink a gallon of water before they come to practice.

Grady senior Anthony Johnson, 17, said the older players on the team spend time talking to new teammates about how to take care of themselves in the heat.

“We say ’That kid could have been us,”’ he said, referring to Davis. “We use it to prepare ourselves to practice.”

Dr. Michael Bergeron, an exercise physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia, said coaches have no excuse when it comes to heat-related injuries and deaths. Bergeron co-chaired a panel that developed safety guidelines for the American College of Sports Medicine.

“Enough is enough. This happens every year,” he said, referring to Davis’ death. “We hear about the ones who die, but I guarantee the emergency rooms have their fair share of kids with heat stroke and heat exhaustion.”

The sports medicine organization adopted a seven-page document with detailed recommendations for each day of the first two weeks of the practice season. It stresses acclimatizing players over the first 14 days instead of going out full force on the first day of the season.

On the Net:

National Federation of State High School Associations: http://www.nfhs.org

Georgia High School Association: http://www.ghsa.net/

American College of Sports Medicine: http://www.acsm.org