Stay Safe in the Heat: Sports and Heat Awareness Tips

Whether you’re a coach or an athlete, there are several steps you can take to stay safe in the heat. With heat-related illnesses being an ever-present concern, here are some of the ways to stay heat aware and keep players and staff safe during practices and games:

  • Know the signs and symptoms of heat illness
  • Monitor on-field conditions in real time
  • Acclimate to high-risk conditions before intense exertion
  • Assess each athlete’s overall fitness level
  • Having a backup plan during periods of elevated heat risk
  • Establishing an emergency action plan (EAP) in the event heat stroke occurs

Among high school athletes, exertion-related heat stroke is a leading cause of preventable death. According to the National Federation of State School Associations (NFHS), 18 high school athletes have died due to heat exposure in the past 10 years during practice.

Athletes of all ages are at risk, not just children, so heat awareness is paramount at every level of competition. To help with that, here are some easily implemented and effective heat safety tips:

1) Know the Signs and Symptoms of Heat Illness

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can come on suddenly, especially when temperatures and humidity levels rise gradually. That means vigilance is the first step in preventing heat illnesses. If the team’s coaches and trainers are familiar with the signs of heat exhaustion, they can intervene before it progresses to heat stroke.

Signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Cool skin that may be moist to the touch
  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Nausea
  • Headache

If not treated, heat exhaustion may develop into heat stroke, which is a medical emergency. Heat stroke presents with profound confusion, difficulty speaking, a dangerously high body temperature (more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit), and loss of consciousness.

Heat stroke deaths are completely preventable if coaches, teammates and parents act as soon as someone shows signs of heat illness.

Heat Aware's Heat Cards - HATS-20A | The signs, symptoms and treatment of heat illnesses2) Monitoring On-field Conditions in Real Time

Prompt care is important for heat illnesses, but prevention is the priority. That starts with monitoring on-field conditions and responding quickly if conditions become dangerous.

Throughout practice, take several temperature readings and pay close attention to humidity levels, wind patterns, and sun exposure. You don’t need bulky, sophisticated equipment to do this. A simple liquid crystal thermometer (LCT) can provide accurate temperature readings. LCTs are also weightless and compact, so they’re often integrated into ID badges, and because they’re cost effective, they can be distributed among coaching and trainer staff.

With temperature-taking tools like LCTs on hand, the coaching staff can keep a close eye on practice conditions and respond when they are no longer safe.

3) Acclimating to High-risk Conditions Before Intense Exertion

The vast majority of serious heat illnesses occur during the first few practices, before everyone has had a chance to adjust to the weather and activity levels. The NFHS recommends coaches implement a heat acclimation program that progresses over several weeks and prioritizes the following:

  • Shorter, less intense practices
  • Longer recovery periods between stretches of activity
  • Focusing initial practices on instruction instead of conditioning
  • Introducing protective gear slowly during initial practices

Longer breaks, plenty of water and fluids and minimal protective gear reduce the heat burden on athletes as they ramp up conditioning. This acclimation period also gives coaches the ability to identify anyone with an elevated risk of heat illness.

4) Assessing Each Athlete’s Overall Fitness Level

Prior to intense practices, it’s important for the team’s doctors to assess each athlete’s health and fitness levels. This includes identifying any medical conditions or medications that may place the person at a higher risk of heat illness. Examples include obesity, heart conditions, and certain mental illnesses (which can make it difficult to detect changes in temperature).

With this information, the team’s trainers can dedicate extra attention to anyone at elevated risk. This could include providing additional fluids, taking the athlete’s vitals more often, and developing an individualized plan for high-risk individuals.

5) Having a Backup Plan During Periods of Elevated Heat Risk

In some cases, the heat is too dangerous for any athlete to practice – regardless of fitness level. It is up to the coaching staff to recognize this and adjust accordingly. In fact, the NFHS recommends that teams have a “plan B” for those times when heat derails practice. For example, coaches may move activities to an indoor facility where air conditioning is available. Or, coaches may reduce practice intensity, switching to instruction instead of exertion.

Whatever the team’s plan B, it should be established before it needs to be implemented. Identify an alternative location or practicing method and communicate this to the entire team. That way, when the backup plan is needed, it can be quickly implemented.

6) Establishing an EAP for Heat Stroke Events

Another plan that every sports team needs is an emergency action plan for heat stroke. EAPs specify everything the team needs to know when a player develops heat stroke, including:

  • Where to take the patient for rapid cooling
  • What resources are available for treating heat stroke, and where they are located
  • Procedures for treating the patient, depending on presentation of symptoms
  • Who to contact if a player experiences heat stroke
  • Contact information for the team’s doctor or medical staff

An EAP formalizes the team’s response to a heat-related medical emergency and encourages a rapid response when it’s needed most. Serious complications due to heat stroke may be averted with prompt treatment, and an EAP increases the likelihood that it will be delivered.

Stay Heat Aware So the Team Stays Safe During Summer Sports

When the heat is on during the summer, so is the risk for athletes. To keep players safe and in the game, it’s up to everyone to practice heat awareness. That starts with vigilance – tracking on-field conditions, specifically. Temperature-taking tools like LCTs can make it easier to monitor conditions without stretching the team’s budget.