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Prevent Heat Illness By Empowering Parents, Expert Says

With fall sports beginning around the country, it is critically important for parents to be pro-active when it comes to practices in the heat and humidity of summer.

"Parents need to be empowered to question coaches," says Susan Yeargin, PhD, ATC, an Assistant Professor in the Applied Medicine and Rehabilitation Department at Indiana State University and MomsTeam's heat illness and hydration expert. "Coaches are often viewed as 'knowing best.' But that isn't always the case." Young football player sitting on helmet drinking water

For instance, Dr. Yeargin notes, the Kentucky football coach who was indicted in 2009 for negligent manslaughter in the heat stroke death of 15-year-old Max Gilpin, although later acquitted, "had been 'educated' about heat illness, but still held an inappropriate practice that led to his death. There were numerous fathers and mothers watching the practice, but none of them said a thing."

The key is to ask the coaches questions at the preseason meeting, such as:

  • What time of day are you going to hold practices?
  • What will you do if it's too hot to practice?
  • What do you consider too hot?
  • How will you modify practice in high heat and humidity?
  • How many breaks do they plan to give?
  • What is your  philosophy about practicing in the heat?
  • What is your football philosophy?

Promises, promises

Here are some additional suggestions for parents from Dr. Yeargin:

  • ask coaches to promise that they will do what they say about how they will handle practice in the heat.
  • If they don't uphold that promise, step in before or after practice and report the coach to the athletic director, club or league official.
  • If a coach promises to hold practices only in the morning or evening and then you learn from your son/daughter that practice has been scheduled for the afternoon, complain to the coach.  It is no time to hold back. The safety - indeed, the life - of your child or a teammate may depend on you speaking up.
  • If practices have already started (as they have in many communities), and you are concerned about heat safety (understandable, especially given media reports about the deaths of at least five athletes already this summer), ask for a parents-only meeting with the coach and athletic trainer (if there is one) to discuss your concerns. The coach will be more likely to engage in a safety dialogue if he is not on the field and his/her players are not around. Parents should then bring up their concerns about practice times and intensity.

"Unfortunately, the sad fact is that the main cause of heat stroke is exercise intensity that is too high or too long given the heat and humidity," says Dr. Yeargin.  Exercise intensity and time of practice are two things coaches controls, so they need to be held accountable. Water and sports drinks are important, but they will not prevent a heat stroke if coaches are not careful about how and when they are having practice."