Football coaches hope to avoid dangerous heat, remain prepared

Jason Brown
The Leavenworth Times
Leavenworth High School football players stay hydrated during an afternoon practice Wednesday.

Eastern Kansas high school football coaches are prepared for a handful of hot weeks and the challenge of keeping their athletes safe leading up to the regular season as teams work toward taking the field Sept. 3. 

High school athletes are at risk of heat-related illness when they are exposed to dangerous heat during outdoor practices and coaches bear the responsibility of making sure they are properly hydrated and not over-exerting themselves. 

One of the easiest ways to avoid heat-related illness is to not have any physical activity during the hottest part of the day. With practices normally scheduled during the afternoon, coaches have to be aware and know when to adjust their schedules. 

Shown are Leavenworth High School football players gathering to take a water break during practice. The Pioneers have assigned water bottles for each athlete to help avoid a COVID-19 outbreak.

"We work closely with our trainer to determine ways to alter practice to ensure kids are safe yet productive," said Leavenworth High School head coach Sean Sachen. "Our trainer looks at the heat/humidity index provided by the state and Children's Mercy to decide when to alter practice."

Ottawa High School football coach Walt Alexander, who has coached for 33 years, said the heat is something he always stays abreast of in early-season practices.

“We always move practice time, if it gets too hot,” he said. “We want to be safe. If it gets to a certain point, I don’t mess with trying to go [early], if it is hot. We will move practice back to 6 p.m. and go to 9 p.m. and keep them safe that way.”

Alexander said Kansas high school coaches are used to monitoring their athletes and the conditions. He said the heat is not to be messed with.

“If a kid is struggling a little bit, we make them get them out,” he said. “There is plenty of time for practice. We go all summer three hours a day. If it gets to a point where they can’t go, they should not go.”

In addition to monitoring conditions, coaches also have to ensure that athletes are properly hydrating. USA Football recommends athletes consume at least 16-24 ounces of water before beginning practices. The organization also suggests athletes should have unlimited access to water and drink as much as they want. The obstacle for coaches is making sure their athletes know they must prioritize hydration. 

"Keeping the kids hydrated is always a big challenge," Pleasant Ridge head coach Logan Fritz said. " I tell our kids all the time that they do not have to ask me to get water, they just simply need to let me know where they are going during a drill."

Leavenworth High School football managers refill water bottles for athletes during drills.

USA Football also recommends that any physical activity conducted outside during the summer months should be done in 15-minute intervals to allow for water breaks. Even with all of those precautions in place, there is still a chance a kid will not drink enough water or over-exert themselves. 

Alexander said the coaches take all the precautions and have protocols in place when an athlete succumbs to the heat.

“If they overheat, we have the tubs, keep them iced them down and take more breaks,” Alexander said. “We are careful. We don’t run kids to just run them.”

The coach said the Ottawa football players have done a good job of getting acclimated to the heat and making sure to properly hydrate. 

Sachen said getting kids acclimated is always a challenge, especially with a lot of work to be done before the season kicks off. 

"Keeping kids focused and safe while still acclimating them to playing in the heat is a big challenge while still getting done what we need to learn for the beginning of the season and games," he said. 

The Kansas High School Activities Association has three heat index zones that are used to dictate practice protocols. The heat index is calculated by looking at the actual temperature and relative humidity. Zone 1 is the baseline when the heat index is between 80-89 degrees. Practices are allowed to go full time and coaches are required to administer at least three hydration breaks per hour. Zone 2 comes into play when the heat index is between 90-103 degrees. In this phase, practices are limited to just two hours, while hydration breaks are required at least four times an hour. The most restrictive phase is when the heat index is between 104-and-124 degrees, shortening practices to a maximum of one hour. No conditioning drills are permitted and breaks must last at least 20 minutes. If the heat index eclipses 124 degrees, outdoor practices are not permitted.

Basehor-Linwood head coach Rob Stallbaumer said the temperatures weren't much of a factor for the Bobcats during the opening week of practice because there isn't as much physical work being done.

"Our first week is a lot of installation anyway so there is less physical exertion and more mental reps and learning which helps during the hot temperatures," he said. "If necessary we could do indoor film and meeting times to supplement some of the on-field learning as well."

With temperatures predicted to be in the mid-to-high-90s, everyone will need to be aware of the signs of heat-related illness. 

Leavenworth County was placed under a heat advisory by the National Weather Service Monday that is extended through Thursday. Heat indexes are expected to reach 107 degrees. 

Greg Mast of the Ottawa Herald contributed to this report.