Monday was the first official day of workouts for football teams at Utah high schools. That will seem pretty early to long-time prep sports fans, especially when they look at schedules and see that the first games aren’t until Aug. 23.
Almost four weeks of practice before the first whistle? Unheard of in the past, but it’s going to be the norm from now on as programs across the state implement new heat-acclimatization guidelines adopted by the Utah High School Activities Association earlier this year.
The effort to reduce the chances for heat-related illnesses actually started years ago and the first formal state guidelines were issued just before the start of the fall season in 2012.
However, the UHSAA expanded the explanations and strengthened the guidelines for this year and distributed them in the spring so programs would have more time to plan and adapt schedules to meet the new standards.
The Utah Sports Medicine Advisory Council, which includes athletic trainers, physicians, administrators and others, helped the UHSAA to identify the issues and understand the recommendations made by the National Federation of State High School Associations related to them.
The SMAC chairman is Provo’s Dr. Karl Weenig, who specializes in sports medicine. He also previously coached teams at the high school level for seven years, including in football, the sport which is the target of the UHSAA effort.
“I think it’s a wise move on the state’s part and brings us more in line with what the NCAA and NFL have done,” Weenig said.
“Concussions get a lot of the limelight, and unfortunately in contact sports, there are going to be concussions. You can’t really prevent them entirely, but you can treat them correctly.
“On the other hand, with heat illnesses we can do things to help prevent problems,” the doctor continued. “One of the best ways to do that is to have a heat-acclimatization program. We’ve been working with coaches and schools to allow appropriate time for such a program to be effective.”
Weenig added that although Utah hasn’t had incidents like some of the well-publicized deaths that have occurred in the southeastern U.S., it’s appropriate here as well to try to do what’s in the best interests of the student athletes.
Springville athletic trainer Lisa Walker is entering her 21st year on the job and is also a member of the SMAC board. She’s very pleased to have these guidelines in place.
“One of our biggest fears as athletic trainers is that an athlete would die on our watch,” she said. “No athlete should die from a heat illness since it’s a preventable condition.”
She said the purpose of the program is to prepare the body for the demands of the sport and the climate. “Too many athletes across the country have died from heat illness,” she said.
“ATs across the country have done a lot for prevention to the best of our abilities. The key is to educate and institute some rules in the hopes of prevention.”
Walker said that to her knowledge, there have been no deaths in the state of Utah from heat-related illnesses, but she and her peers want to be pro-active in trying to make sure there never are any. “No rules can prevent everything, but hope we can achieve that goal,” she said.
Valley ATs agreed that high school students are both more and less prepared for the demands of sports these days. That sounds contradictory, but it makes sense when considering how youngsters approach their activities.
“As a general rule, kids are trying to specialize more,” said Kristin Pond, beginning her 14th year as athletic trainer at Pleasant Grove. “They used to play all sorts of sports but they tend to be more focused on one or two now, so we’ve seen improvements in conditioning and more awareness.
“Now, the really serious football kids start around March, so they’re not just jumping in after sitting around all summer,” she added.
Even for those players, though, there’s a need to get bodies used to wearing hot and heavy equipment again, and Pond said the acclimatization program really helps with that. She said that today’s helmets are especially brutal at holding heat in, though they do help prevent or lessen the severity of head injuries.
However, since public high school football teams generally take all comers, they still get kids who didn’t really prepare to play ahead of time, Pond said.
One of the things American Fork’s 16-year athletic trainer Becky Bailey likes about the rules is that they take into account exactly those students, who either didn’t or haven’t been able to work out all summer long because of jobs, family vacations or other activities.
“The intensity level just can’t be the same for those not working out previously,” she said. Bailey noted that players who start practices later in the month will still have to follow the same guidelines.
“That will be the challenge, to try to stay on top of where individual kids are in the program,” Bailey said. “That aspect might be the hardest for the coaches to get used to, and all athletic trainers will need to work closely with our coaches to track that.”
Walker agreed that some kids are more focused and prepared than others and conditioning programs have continued to improve, but added that in general terms overall, bodies are not as prepared for outdoor activities now as they were a couple of decades ago.
“It’s a different world we live in which really makes these steps necessary. Kids today tend to be a lot more sedentary,” she explained.
“They play a lot of video games and spend hours on computers or watching TV. Also, there is so much more air conditioning now. We go from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned store.
“Years ago, we’d take off on our bikes early in the morning, stay outside all day and come home for supper to a house that, more often than not, wasn’t cooled,” Walker said.
All three athletic trainers agreed that heat illnesses are not just a football problem. “They can be an issue indoors as well as outdoors,” Walker said. “It’s important to follow hydration standards and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“I think if the rules are read, understood and followed, we’ll prevent heat illnesses,” she continued. “In sports like football which require gear, it has to be added at the right stages.”
The ATs were also in accord that the most positive things about the guidelines are the limits on the lengths of practices and the required recovery time in between. They would like to see the guidelines extended to other sports as well, and consider this as a necessary first step in the right direction.
“Realistically, our rules are a good start,” Walker said. “However, they need to be perfected to extend to other situations. I do believe they’ll be tweaked more in the future to comply with national guidelines.”
Bailey noted that the national association of athletic trainers is at the forefront of this push. “Athletic trainers are not personal trainers,” she said. “The association is heavily involved in a joint effort with other medical professionals as one of the leaders in research.
“I try to help my coaches, athletes and parents to understand the reasons why we have the rules,” she said. “It will help you to be a more efficient team and have healthier athletes, which means less time in the training room and more in practice,” Bailey concluded.
“We’re pleased that Utah has chosen to step up and begin this process,” Walker said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Beky Beaton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @BeatonWrite.
UHSAA heat acclimatization guidelines
1. Days 1 through 5 of the heat-acclimatization period consist of the first 5 days of formal practice. During this time, athletes may not participate in more than one (1) practice per day.
2. If a practice is interrupted by inclement weather or heat restrictions, the practice should recommence once conditions are deemed safe. Total practice time should not exceed 3 hours in any one (1) day.
3. A 1-hour maximum walk-through is permitted during days 1–5 of the heat-acclimatization period; however, a 3-hour recovery period should be inserted between the practice and walk-through (or vice versa).
4. During days 1–2 of the heat-acclimatization period, in sports requiring helmets or shoulder pads, a helmet should be the only protective equipment permitted. During days 3–5, only helmets and shoulder pads should be worn. Beginning on day 6, all protective equipment may be worn and full contact may begin. A) On days 3–5, contact with blocking sleds and tackling dummies may be initiated. B) Full-contact sports: 100% live contact drills should begin no earlier than day 6.
5. Beginning no earlier than day 6 and continuing through day 14, double-practice days must be followed by a single-practice day. On single-practice days, 1 walk-through is permitted, separated from the practice by at least 3 hours of continuous rest. When a double-practice day is followed by a rest day, another double-practice day is permitted after the rest day.
6. On a double-practice day, neither practice should exceed 3 hours in duration, nor should student-athletes participate in more than 5 total hours of practice. Warm-up, stretching, cool-down, walk through, conditioning, and weight-room activities are included as part of the practice time. The two practices should be separated by at least 3 continuous hours in a cool environment.
7. Because the risk of exertional heat illnesses during the preseason heat-acclimatization period is high, we strongly recommend that an athletic trainer be on site before, during, and after all practices.