High schools practice with an eye on heat, safety

ahancock@herald-leader.comJuly 22, 2012 

As soccer players from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School gulped from water bottles during a quick break, head coach Todd Bretz said it can easily feel 10 degrees hotter on the field than on the sidelines, even at 7 a.m.

The temperature might be in the low 90s, but as cleats sink into the synthetic turf field and the cloudless sky beats down on sweat-stained jerseys, the heat index quickly soars.

Dunbar, like many Central Kentucky high schools, began its fall sports practices last week. Rain had cooled things off on this July morning, but the heat will remain a concern for officials in a summer that has seen record high temperatures, burn bans, water-shortage watches and drought.

"It's been a hot summer so far, and I don't expect it to change, so that could be an issue," said Phil Warren, Madison County Schools' athletics director.

Temperatures were in the 90s as the dead period ended for the area's high school football, soccer, volleyball, golf and cross-country teams, but Fayette County schools athletics director Don Adkins said coaches and trainers have a routine for dealing with July and August practices.

"We're always concerned about the heat; we're just following standard operating procedure at this point," Adkins said.

As seen at Dunbar's soccer practice, that procedure includes plenty of water breaks, holding practices in the early morning and checking the heat index several times a day.

Athletic officials across Kentucky remain cautious because they know the toll that high temperatures can take on young athletes.

The state strengthened heat-safety requirements for high school athletic coaches after the heat-related death of Max Gilpin, a football player at Louisville's Pleasure Ridge Park High School, in August 2008.

High school coaches in Kentucky are now required to take an online course and test covering athlete heat safety every two years. That mandated is part of a law passed by the General Assembly.

Coaches are trained to recognize symptoms of players who seem disoriented, and to react quickly to heat exhaustion or other injuries.

"Everyone needs to be able to handle an emergency if it happens," and a coach should be able to step in if a trainer is not nearby, Warren said.

"A trainer can't be at four or five different places at once, so if something does happen, (coaches) need to be prepared," Warren said.

Even when coaches and trainers aren't nearby, which is typical in cross-country practices, athletes need to be aware of their own limits, said Dunbar's head cross-country coach, Christopher Flores.

"It's hard for me to know where everyone is at, and how, physically, everyone's doing," Flores said. "So I make sure I preach to them: Know your body; know what's going on."

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association mandates that athletic trainers alter or cancel practices as the heat index approaches specific benchmarks.

For example, when the heat index hits 95 degrees, KHSAA requires that all practices include mandatory 10-minute water breaks every half-hour.

Adkins, the Fayette County athletics director, said each of the district's athletic trainers have equipment to measure heat indexes on playing fields and check the index several times in one practice. Coaches also offer cold towels, ice baths and misting fans.

When the heat index goes above 104, all outside activity must be stopped or moved inside if air conditioning is available, but some coaches don't risk flirting with the heat index's upper boundary. Bretz canceled one afternoon practice when the index was 100.

As Malik Mahmud, a junior cross-country runner for Dunbar, stretched before a morning run, he said dealing with the heat is just another part of being an athlete.

"Just prepare yourself and know it's going to be hot that day; that's all you can do," Mahmud said.

Amanda Hancock: (859) 231-3205. Daniel Moore: (859) 231-3344. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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