It’s August in Arizona. That’s something that no high school football player wants to think about.
But it’s an inevitable part of the pre-season training that takes place each year at schools across the state as teams prepare for a mid-August season opener in sweltering temperatures.
Even before the hottest month of the summer got underway, the first heat-related casualties began dropping as football practice officially opened July 23. Two days later, a football player collapsed at Perry High School in Gilbert and was taken to the hospital to be treated for dehydration.
Another Perry athlete, who was working out inside, also fell ill from the heat and was treated on the scene. Temperatures that day set a new record at 116 degrees.
And earlier this week, on the first day of August, three football players at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale were hospitalized for heat-related illnesses after falling sick during practice. All three were treated and released.
But some aren’t as fortunate. The heat-related death of a 19-year-old player at the University of Maryland, who collapsed during a May 29 practice, provides a stark reminder of just how deadly the heat can be.
Arizona hasn’t recorded any heat-related deaths among high school football players going back several decades. But that’s due in large part to a proactive stance the state has taken toward the problem. In June of 2012, the state adopted heat-acclimation guidelines that were endorsed by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), becoming one of the earliest states to get on board with the national program. Those guidelines included how often teams could practice, what time of day, what equipment could be worn, etc.
Today, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the state’s governing body for high school sports, allows coaches to put their players in helmets the first three days of practice, adding shoulder pads for the next three-day period, and moving on to full pads for the remainder of practices. Coaches are trained to watch for the signs of oncoming heat illness, such as dizziness, lack of energy, heart palpitations, etc.
From there, it’s up to the coaches to use common sense. They need to set up frequent water breaks and make water available to players at any time they feel they need it. Players are also encouraged to drink plenty of water during the day in preparation for practice, and then follow up practice with more water.
Other ways coaches are working around the weather include holding early-morning practices, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., or going at night, generally after 7 p.m. There’s also the option of holding practice sessions in the school’s gymnasium on the really hot days.
External heat stroke is the leading cause of preventable death in high school sports; more than 9,000 high school athletes across the country are treated for external heat illness each year. And football players, studies show, are 11 times more likely to suffer heat-related illnesses than all other high school sports combined.
The operative word here is “preventable.” Heat illnesses are preventable. It just takes a little due diligence.
A good rule to follow during those days when football is played under the extreme heat of the Sonoran Desert:
When you’re thirsty, drink some water.
When you’re not thirsty, drink some water.
When you get home from practice, drink some water.
And when you get finished drinking water… drink some water.