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Competing in the heat

Heat-related deaths across US raise safety questions locally

  • 4 min to read
Heat-related deaths across US raise safety questions locally

Ronnie Garcia hydrates during football practice on Monday.

The fall semester may have kicked off in the Mother Lode, but temperatures are still at scorching highs.

With student athletes returning to the field, preventing heat stroke is a hot topic nationwide, and local coaches are weighing in on what they do to keep kids safe.

Due to the summertime practice season and the added load of helmets and padding, heat stroke is of particular concern among the football community. According to a study published by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, 64 football players died from heat stroke between 1995 and 2018, and the vast majority of those fatalities were high school athletes who overheated during practice.

Some of the warning signs of heat stroke are confusion, dizziness, nausea, red skin, lack of sweat and a body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If medical attention is not administered immediately and the body cooled down using wet cloths or an ice bath, the situation can quickly become fatal.

Physicians have contended the effectiveness of immediate immersion in cold water, with many arguing that quick access to an ice bath is a cost-effective way to prevent 100% of heat stroke deaths.

Heat-related deaths across US raise safety questions locally

A hose drizzles water while Calaveras High School football players practice at Frank Meyer Field in San Andreas.

Following the heat-related death of high school football player Zach Polsenberg in 2017, his family is lobbying to mandate ice tubs on every high school field in Florida. In Maryland, the family of Jordan McNair, who died last year after overheating during football practice, has rallied to educate student athletes, parents and the football community on heat stroke prevention. An organization in McNair’s name has also implemented a campaign to donate ice tubs to schools.

In California last year, Assembly Bill 2800 was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown, requiring coaches to complete training in the signs and symptoms of heat illness when renewing their CPR/ first aid certifications. Still, easy access to cold water immersion is not required on California campuses.

“We are continuously discussing both preventative and treatment measures with our schools and committees and publish best practices for our members to use as resources,” Ron Nocetti, Executive Director of the California Interscholastic Federation, told the Enterprise on Aug. 22.

“There has to be a request from our membership to mandate cooling units,” Nocetti added, but indicated that committee meetings in the fall may yield such requests.

In the meantime, the responsibility of heat stroke prevention falls upon coaches’ and trainers’ ability to properly hydrate their athletes prior to exertion and quickly identify the warning signs.

Bret Harte High School Head Football Coach Casey Kester says he was required to take a heat safety course as part of his training. According to Kester, adequate hydration and close monitoring of athletes has been key in preventing any serious heat-related incidents during his tenure.

“If we don’t have wind and it’s really hot, we give them water breaks every 8-10 minutes. We have the guys not only drink water, but hose down. We want to get as much water on them as we can, to take as much of the heat off of them as we can,” Kester told the Enterprise. “As soon as a player has any sort of heat-related indication, we take them out and check them out. We also identify early what kids are likely to have problems, so we have eyes on the kids all the time. If a kid isn’t sweating the way we think he should, we’ll pull him aside and start talking to him and give him as much water as we can.”

Heat-related deaths across US raise safety questions locally

Katie Saul takes a drink from a water hose while taking a break from cross country practice at Frogtown, while other student athletes wait for a turn to hydrate.

Another demographic particularly at risk of overheating are the cross country runners, who train off of school grounds and don’t always have immediate access to water.

“The first thing we do is talk about the runners taking care of themselves,” said Doug Avrit, Head Cross Country Coach at Calaveras High School. “If they show up and haven’t been drinking water all day, it’s going to be a problem. If you do that, you’re not going to feel good, and you’re quickly going to be in trouble. If you come out here at 3:30 in the afternoon and decide that’s when you are going to start drinking water, then it’s going to be too late.”

Athletes must learn to be responsible for their own hydration prior to exertion, Avrit said, though during practice, the coach will often provide water in designated locations along the run.

“If some kid is really feeling bad, we’ll turn them around and come back, but we haven’t had too much of that,” Avrit said.

Besides properly hydrating in the hours before and after practice, (a person’s body weight divided in half, plus 15 is the number of ounces they should drink in a 24 hour period), Bret Harte Head Athletic Trainer Kristin Vieira says there are also some things athletes should avoid to prevent heat-related illnesses.

“Any type of energy drinks, like Monster, Rockstar or anything with caffeine,” Vieira said. “You definitely want to cut out fatty foods. You want simple sugars like granola bars, but you don’t want to be eating fast food. You want to keep it healthy. But mainly it’s the energy drinks.”

Athletes who are showing signs of heat-related illness should be “done for the day” and closely monitored.

Heat-related deaths across US raise safety questions locally

Tyler Crawford, a Calaveras High School cross country runner, takes a break from practice at Frogtown in Angels Camp on Monday to hydrate and cool down.

“You want to make sure they cool down, get hydrated and get non-fatty foods in them,” Vieira said. “If they are still not feeling good after an hour to an hour-and-a-half, that’s the point where you say that you need to see a doctor. It may be they need to be hooked up to an IV and get additional fluids.”

Some other factors athletes and coaches should consider before playing in extreme heat are pre-existing conditions such as asthma, which can be triggered by high temperatures, Vieira said.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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