New heat guidelines alter the practice landscape

Long gone are the days of whip-cracking Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, no gain without pain and water breaks being for wimps. But still, the problem of heat related illness, especially in the weeks of mid- to late August leading up to the fall high school sports season, is very real.

Because of that, Howard County — and every other county in Maryland — will follow a new set of heat acclimatization guidelines designed to prevent student athletes from suffering heat-related illnesses. The guidelines were created after the Maryland General Assembly passed a statute to address preseason practice heat acclimatization last year.

"Heat illness is completely preventable. We should not have a child die from heat illness," said Howard County Coordinator of Athletics Mike Williams.

Even though Howard County already had some heat-related guidelines in place — for example, postponing outdoor practices during Code Red heat alerts and making water readily available — the most notable changes under the new guidelines include restrictions on when protective pads can be worn, and when teams can engage in two-a-day practices.

Last year, a team could practice twice a day, in full pads, on the first day of practice.

"There was no regulation against that last year but I would hope that the coaches would have already (not) been doing that," said Ned Sparks, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletics Association executive director. "I think the coaches realize that (heat-related illness) is a concern."

Williams, who met earlier this summer with a handful of county football coaches and athletics and activities managers, was happy to find that Sparks' assumption was correct.

"Going through this whole process one of the things that I was extremely pleased to discover is that our coaches — our football coaches especially — have been using best practices anyway," he said. "The good football coaches aren't beating up their kids."

Under the new guidelines, football players cannot practice in full pads until the sixth day of practice — meaning that full contact cannot begin until that day — and in field hockey, goalies cannot wear chest protectors until the third day of practice. There are no restrictions on equipment for soccer and volleyball players.

Furthermore, for the first five days of practice, teams are limited to one practice of three hours or less per day, as well as a one-hour walk-through session. On the sixth day, teams can practice twice a day, with total practice time limited to five hours or less, but every two-a-day must be followed by a single-day practice or a rest day.

Because football scrimmages are not allowed until three days of practice in full pads, some scrimmages had to be pushed back, causing some teams to have two scrimmages scheduled in one week.

The new restrictions do not just apply to football, as every fall team will have to adjust to the new time restrictions.

Reservoir volleyball coach Carole Ferrante says the first few days of tryouts have been a challenge trying to fit everything in.

"It's had a huge impact; we've had to cut so much out of tryouts already," she said. "I feel like I have to cram everything into the three hours. There is no room for frivolous, fun things."

She also said that sending her players home for a three-hour recovery period, only to have them return for the one-hour walk-through, seemed inefficient. She estimates that over the course of the preseason, she will have lost almost 20 hours of court time compared to previous years, making off-season club teams that much more important in player development. But she understands that the motivation behind the new restrictions is the safety of the student athletes.

"I'm trying to make the best out of the situation. That's part of coaching; there has to be that honor code to do the right thing whether you like it or not," she said.

Although the guidelines will be self-enforced within each school system, Williams says that since two University of Maryland doctors who had lead roles in developing the policy — Dr. James Dreese and Dr. Yvette Rooks — live in Howard County and have children at local public schools, "We're following (the policy) to the T."

Williams added that some coaches were originally wary of the new policy, fearing that it could put their teams at a disadvantage, but he does not see that happening.

"It limits what we can do but it's the same for everyone. It doesn't give anyone a competitive advantage ... there were some questions, there was some head shaking," he said. "But we've had the concussion (prevention) program in longer than anyone and we're still winning state championships, we're still just as competitive as ever, and we're still protecting our kids.

"Once we roll it out it will be like everything else, and it's good for the kids," Williams said. "It keeps the game more fun in the short term and the long term."

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