A new Maryland State Department of Education policy aimed at better acclimatizing student athletes to the heat during the early days of practice nearly brought teddy bears and trash cans to the football field this week.
While much of the model heat acclimatization policy is straight forward -- limiting practice time for all athletes and gradually increasing padding and contact for football players over the first six days of the preseason -- some of the guidelines remain open to interpretation.
Since practice started Saturday, coaches in all sports have been allowed one three-hour practice per day, but, with a three-hour break, they could also conduct an hour-long walkthrough with no helmets, pads or "sports-related equipment."
Greg LeGrand, coordinator of athletics for Anne Arundel County, said some of his football coaches have gotten creative. One wanted to use a teddy bear to hand off instead of a football, and another wanted to set out 55-gallon trash cans to simulate linemen during walkthroughs. Another had defenders hold up jerseys for players to hit during practice because they couldn't block each other until Friday, the first day they are allowed in full pads.
LeGrand wouldn't allow the teddy bears or trash cans, but he permitted the stand-in jerseys.
"There is some gray area here," LeGrand said. "That's why my staff is going out and trying to see two or three schools a day, so we can say, 'This is OK, but this is probably not OK.' We're having the coaches work through closing the gaps between what they think is acceptable and what is not acceptable."
Most of the complaints about the model policy -- developed by a 13-person committee of administrators, coaches, athletic trainers and doctors and signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley in May -- come from football coaches.
In addition to limiting practice to three hours each day and prohibiting twice-a-day practice sessions for the first five days, the policy allows athletes to wear only shorts, T-shirts and helmets for the first two days. They can add shoulder pads on the third day and start hitting tackling dummies and blocking sleds, but they can't go to full pads and two-a-days until the sixth day.
Padding restrictions also apply to field hockey goalies. After wearing helmets and kickers for the first two days, they can add chest protectors on the third.
While many coaches have adjusted to the new rules, others, especially football coaches, aren't happy with the way practice time is restricted to three hours per day. Nearly every team had its first scrimmage scheduled for Saturday, but most were moved to next week because Saturday is only their second day in full pads. Those who kept their scrimmages Saturday will run a controlled version instead of a regular one.
River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said he's concerned that dropping to three hours of practice from last year's five hours could lead to non-heat related injuries due to less practice time and also because his team will now scrimmage twice in five days -- Monday and next Friday.
"I understand what they're trying to do," Van Deusen said, "keep the kids safe, but we're losing 10 hours of practice time over the first five days. Our fear as coaches is you're dealing with the heat acclimation on one end, but on the other end, these kids need reps, proper tackling techniques, for more than just a few days. You have three days in helmets and shoulder pads, so we're going to do a lot of blocking technique, a lot of tackling technique. We won't be able to take it to the ground, but we've got to get as many reps as we can."
No one disputes the need to acclimatize players to the heat. Nearly every August, there's a report of a high school football player succumbing to heat stroke somewhere in the United States.
In 2011, five high school football players in the United States died of heat stroke, according to the annual survey of football injury research conducted by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. Since 1995, 40 high school players have died from heat stroke.
All of the Baltimore-area jurisdictions -- Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- had heat acclimatization policies in place before the General Assembly took up the issue, but this is the first time there has been a statewide model for all public schools.
Dr. Yvette Rooks, head team physician for the University of Maryland and a member of the committee that developed the model guidelines, said everyone needed to be on the same page.
"We have to have a standardized policy that within our state all the schools are doing the same thing and I know we're not Texas, we're not Florida, we're not Georgia," Rooks said, "but we have to have a policy of protection because hindsight is 20/20. We can look back and say that was a 90-degree day but people have different interpretations of what heat is and what humidity is, so we have to have a standardized policy so there's a reference tool for our coaches."
Still parts of the policy have been interpreted differently. The three-hour break between the practice and the walkthrough can be used for classroom study in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties while Baltimore City, and Baltimore and Howard counties mandate a complete break.
Rooks prefers the complete break because she said coaches and athletes need to realize that rest and recovery is important to heat acclimatization.
"Heat can do a lot of things," she said. "It can make you delirious, you can get dehydrated, you can have a concussion and don't know it because you say it's heat, so having this policy where you have to have a break period between practices allows the body to heal so we can recognize [if this is] something more than just a hydration issue or whatever else. A recovery period is also mental. … You've been pounding for three hours, so you not only have to recover physically, but your brain has to recover, too."
The coordinators or supervisors of athletics for the five area counties and the city said many of their teams are only practicing for three hours and not bothering with the walkthrough because such a big break is required in between.
In Anne Arundel County, LeGrand said his coaches dealt with very few heat-related issues in recent years, because once teachers report to school, teams can't practice while teachers work. Now with everything limited to a seven-hour block, coaches who use all seven hours will have a practice or a walkthrough during the hottest part of the day.
"A lot of our soccer and cross country coaches would rather go from 8 to 9:30 in the morning and then come back in the evening from 7 to 8:30," LeGrand said, "but the model policy doesn't allow you to do that. As a whole, that policy is a very good one. There's just some things that could be tweaked."
Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and a member of the committee, said there is room to tweak the policy.
He said there are a couple ways to accommodate the lost practice time -- move the starting date for fall sports two or three days earlier or move the first game a week later. He said each has its pros and cons
"We're giving these things a lot of consideration and thought," Sparks said. "We want to talk to a lot of people. We want to talk to our coaches, supervisors, the medical people and find out what might be the best thing."
The legislation does not apply to the private school leagues, but officials of the boys Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and the girls Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland have recommended that their schools follow the model policy. Rick Diggs, executive director of the MIAA, said the policy will be mandatory in that association beginning next fall.