ELLENWOOD, Ga. — High school football teams nationwide begin practice this time of year, including the Saints of Cedar Grove.
On a hot, humid morning, the players drilled on the field behind their suburban Atlanta high school as head coach John Adams gave them advice and encouragement.
It’s a good team; they’ve won four state titles in the past six years and four former Saints entered the NFL Draft last year — more than any other high school in the country.
Adams was therefore excited about the upcoming season. But he was also careful to keep the athletes safe as they trained in the Atlanta heat.
“The heat has reached a point where it’s tough on everyone,” he said. “But I think if you constantly condition yourself to the heat, you sort of get used to it.”
He reminds students to drink enough water even on non-practicing days. They take longer breaks. And he said he was watching them during practice, to make sure they were okay.
Football and the dangers of the heat
From pros to college to high school, soccer players begin training at the hottest time of year, many on grass pitches roasting in the direct sun. They wear layers of gear, and a lot of them — especially the linemen — are fat.
This can create a dangerous situation.
According to research from the University of Georgia, between 1980 and 2009, 58 soccer players across the country have died of heat-related illnesses. Most of them were in high school.
The study, published in 2010, found that the number of footballers dying from heat was increasing over time. Georgia was one of the worst states, leading the nation in heat-related deaths of high school football players.
But over the past decade, Georgia has turned things around. Experts say this bucks the trend of more players suffering from heat-related illnesses. And the rules put in place here have become a model for other states looking to protect student athletes from the heat.
This is all the more important as climate change drives up temperatures and humidity.
At Cedar Grove practice, the sideline, which was in the shade, was littered with water bottles. The team took five-minute water breaks together, but Adonijah Green, a 17-year-old defensive end, said the athletes could also grab a drink when they needed it.
“We can hydrate at any time without water restriction,” he said.
And the players weren’t wearing their pads yet. By the end of July, they were getting used to training in the heat, with limited practices, limited contact – no tackles allowed – and without all their equipment.
“With the pads, it gets hot, it gets heavy,” Green said. “It tires you.”
It’s not just the policies of Cedar Grove. The Georgia High School Association mandates a five-day ramp-up period without pads while teams begin practice.
Athletes must be allowed to hydrate whenever they need it, and coaches are not allowed to drill them as punishment.
During the hottest part of the year, teams should also measure the wet globe temperature, which takes into account not only heat and humidity, but also sun exposure, before and during training. Based on this reading, there are more and longer breaks needed, and in high temperatures teams should be prepared to put a player in an ice bath if necessary.
If it is even hotter, no outdoor practice is allowed. If the wet bulb temperature reaches 92, no outdoor drive is allowed.
Bud Cooper, a clinical professor in the University of Georgia Department of Kinesiology who studies heat-related illnesses and athletes, said that before the Georgia High School Association passed these rules there were about a dozen years, schools could do just about anything they wanted.
However, after the high-profile heat-related death of a high school football player, the association was ready to make a change.
“Obviously there was a problem,” Cooper said.
Protect student athletes
He and other UGA experts designed the heat rules based on their research. Cooper said when they introduced them to the high school association, he wasn’t sure how they would be received.
“The rules committee was made up of a group of five coaches, all of whom individually had probably 35 or 40 years of coaching. So people who have been there for a very, very long time,” he said.
But the rules, which cover all high school sports, not just football, were adopted, he said, after relatively little discussion.
Cooper and his colleagues followed up study after the rules were introduced, to confirm that they were working.
They did it.
According to their research, there were fewer heat-related illnesses and, among programs that followed the rules, no heat-related deaths among high school football players in Georgia.
“It’s exciting for me,” Cooper said. “There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to sit here and say, ‘I’ve done things that have saved lives.’ “
And not just in Georgia, according to Becca Stearns, chief operating officer of the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, a program that studies and advocates athlete safety, named after a Minnesota Vikings player who died of a heat stroke.
“Georgia is one of the states that has been so profound in its impact and leadership on thermal safety and policies adopted within the state,” Stearns said.
What stands out from Georgia, Stearns said, is that the rules are based on data and research. Other states have been able to adapt the Georgian model to protect their student-athletes as well.
According to Stearns, 30 states have some sort of heat policy. A dozen states base their policy on wet bulb temperature.
It’s more urgent now, Stearns said, because climate change is driving up temperature and humidity.
According to another paper According to UGA researchers, in the future, Atlanta could have four times as many days that are too hot to exercise outside safely. Other cities across the country are also seeing increases.
“It’s certainly a very relevant conversation in terms of maybe trying to act now, before it gets even more intense,” Stearns said. “We are seeing an increase in cases of heat-related illnesses.”
Experts stress that death from heatstroke is preventable, but teams must be prepared: to be able to recognize your symptomsand to treat anyone who suffers from it as fast as possible – cool their bodies before transporting them anywhere.
For parents of student athletes, Stearns said they should feel comfortable asking what their school or state’s heat policies are.
“The question always comes down to, ‘Who is responsible for the health and safety of our high school athletes? And the saddest thing is that it’s not always a straight answer,” she said. “I wouldn’t drop my kids off at the pool without a lifeguard. And it’s the same idea with that. You want to make sure these protections are in place before you drop your child off at sports.”
Coach Adams of Cedar Grove told him the key is to plan ahead, be smart with practices and always keep the students’ best interests in mind.
“They’re kids. So, you know, sometimes kids will just try to toughen themselves up. But you have to be smart,” he said. “Life is more important than football.”