High school football and desert heat…a survival guide

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                </div>The Flagstaff High School football team found a way to beat the summer heat that plagues athletes who have to practice in August in Arizona.  The coach started practice at […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The Flagstaff High School football team found a way to beat the summer heat that plagues athletes who have to practice in August in Arizona.  The coach started practice at midnight.

Actually, it was 12:01 a.m. and it was just one time.  Head coach Ed Campos came up with the idea to start the fall schedule with a midnight practice, using a gimmick that has become popular in college basketball.

Campos and his coaches wanted to be the first school to get the season started, which officially began last Monday.  They were on the field in the first minute of the new day and worked the 52 players that showed up until after 2 0’clock in the morning, running position-specific drills, going through conditioning exercises, and concluding with competitive relays.  Tuesday returned to the normal 4 p.m. practice schedule.

Actually, teams in the Flagstaff area have little trouble dealing with the summer heat.  The temperature was somewhere in the mid-50s during Monday’s practice in the dark, which had to be held at nearby Coconino High School because the Eagles don’t have lights on their football field.  And the high temperatures all this week have hovered in the mid-to high-70’s.

But Flagstaff sits at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet.  It’s a completely different story down on the desert floor, where the thermometer regularly hits over 100 degrees in the metro Phoenix and Tucson areas.

And, unfortunately, extreme heat and football can be a dangerous combination.  External heatstroke (EHS) is the leading cause of preventable death in high school athletics and more than 9,000 high school athletes are treated for exertional heat illness each year, according to the latest statistics available.

But here’s an even more sobering statistic: Football players are 11 times more likely to suffer heat-related illnesses than all other high school sports combined.

Here in Arizona, not only do practices have to begin in the hottest month of the summer, but games are now actually being scheduled before the final days of August run out.  And that’s a major risk factor because athletes are not yet acclimated to intense practices in temperatures that can reach above 110 degrees.

Despite an increased awareness of the problem, it is difficult to understand why heat-related football deaths have tripled nationwide since 1994.  However, some states are beginning to mandate heat-acclimatization guidelines, a program endorsed by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

And Arizona is one of the early states to adopt these guidelines.  New Jersey was the first to do so, in May of 2011.  Arizona came on board in June of the following year, one of just 10 states to make the move so far.

The guidelines, similar to those adopted at the college level, recommend limiting the number of practices per day and the number of hours each practice session.  They also suggest what gear can be worn during the early period of adjustment to the heat and strongly recommend that an athletic trainer be on site during and after all practices.

Those players attending the Flagstaff midnight opener were dressed in helmets, shirts, shorts, and football cleats – which follows the recommendations of the acclimatization guidelines, even though the heat at that time of the day was not an issue.  Adding shoulder pads isn’t recommended until days 3-5.

The state has done its job in partnering with the NFHS in trying to safeguard the players.  But this has to be a combined effort.  Coaches and athletic directors must be aware of, and follow, these guidelines.  Trainers need to make sure the players stay hydrated and watch for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness.  And, hopefully, the players knew enough to arrive at this week’s practices in shape.

But parents have a role, too.  It’s just natural to think you’re putting your son in the hands of people you trust – and most of the time that’s a correct assumption.  However, be aware.  Ask questions.  Know what kind of practice conditions your football player is experiencing.

Football played in the heat of the Arizona desert can be challenging.

But it doesn’t have to be deadly.