Arizonans are accustomed to extreme summer heat, but even so, the conditions take a toll on daily outdoor activities.
That is the case for the Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista football programs. The two Ahwatukee teams were forced to modify practice schedules during excessive heat warnings last week when preseason camps opened.
“We recommend splitting the time up, going indoors to get out of the heat,” said David Hines, executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the state’s governing body of high school sports. “There’s a lot of stretching, formations and other things you can do indoors to cool down and get out of the heat.”
The AIA has implemented guidelines to aid athletes in acclimating to the heat during preseason practices.
In a new protocol for 2018, football players are required to wear no more than shorts, shirts and helmets the first three days of practice in the climate where they play their home games, followed by three more days adding only shoulder pads before they are allowed to practice in full pads.
All teams that had preseason camps in cooler climates to escape the heat, therefore, were required to start the protocol over when they returned to the desert, where they play.
The AIA continues to do research to refine its protocol for football practices in the desert’s dry heat. Most protocols around the country are based on places where humidity is more of a factor.
Alongside trainers across the southwestern part of the United States, the AIA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee is researching dry temperatures using the heat index – calculated using outside temperature and humidity.
While some Arizona school districts have established their own guidelines regarding football practices, Hines hopes to establish a specific baseline for schools in different regions of the state to follow.
“The concern is dry temperatures. There isn’t a lot of research done about them,” Hines said. “It’s important to give kids a break and to take it easy.
“It’s going to be hot.”
For now, Hines is calling upon schools to make the right call to keep the athletes safe.
The two Ahwatukee teams rely on guidelines handed down from the Tempe Union High School District, which has trainers from each school communicate with coaches about weather conditions.
Bruce Kipper, the interim athletic director for the district, said the policy is based on a reading from the heat index chart, which measures the outside temperature and humidity percentage on the field.
“Before each practice, the athletic trainer measures whether it is safe for the athletes,” Kipper said. “If the heat index gets up into the danger zone, then there are varying modifications based on what it is. It could go from helmets only to canceling practice to postponing practice.”
Head athletic trainers, including Steve Baca at Desert Vista, have made checking the index a daily routine, and they are communicating with coaches several times throughout the day.
Thunder coaches chose to practice in the evening to open camp, but due to scorching temperatures lingering into the 5 p.m. hour, they were often forced to wait longer to hit the field.
“We go outside to the specific venue where they are practicing and check the temperature and humidity reading,” Baca said. “We match the reading to a chart and it will tell you what the heat index is. Based on that, we set restrictions.”
Temperatures from 105 to 115 degrees are considered the danger zone. From there, Baca says, they divide it into three categories for the football team.
Shoulder pads are not allowed if the reading exceeds 110 degrees. Anything above 115 restricts the use of helmets.
“They can go out, but we severely restrict how long they practice and how often they get water breaks,” Baca said. “Nobody is allowed on the field if it exceeds 120.”
Due to the AIA guidelines for heat acclimation, Thunder coach Dan Hinds often pushes practice back.
The extra time allows for a workout in the gym and team meetings, activities they have been receptive to, according to Hinds.
“Obviously, no matter what time you practice, it is going to be hot,” Hinds said. “They don’t let the change of schedule affect their focus, so it hasn’t been an issue at all.”
Extra precautions have been taken by the Desert Vista staff when the players do begin practice.
Studies have shown that helmets add about 30 degrees to practice conditions. For this reason, water is always available to players, as well as special hoses to allow players to spray their bodies and keep cool. Helmets come off as often as possible to let players cool.
Portable ice baths are brought onto the field in the event of an emergency situation, while additional baths are prepared inside the training room.
Hinds requires helmets to remain off during warmups and immediately following drills.
“Helmets are off a lot,” Hinds said. “Back in the old days, that wasn’t the case, but now it’s about being smart and taking many water breaks.”
A similar strategy has been implemented by new coach Rich Wellbrock at Mountain Pointe.
The Pride begin practice around 5 p.m., often stretching in an area with shade on the field.
“We all know what we can and can’t do and how to take care of kids,” Wellbrock said. “Sometimes the heat is worse than other years. You just modify and listen to the ones who are the smartest in the room, which in this case is our training staff.”
The Pride split time during practice early in the week with helmets on and off.
Trainers and coaches forced players to drink water every few minutes, often encouraging them to seek a shaded area.
It’s the extra precaution taken before, during and after practice that Wellbrock believes is the most important when practicing in the heat.
“I think we have all learned that you have to adapt,” Wellbrock said. “We are going to talk to them, tell them what they need to do over the next day to get ready for the next practice. It’s all about staying hydrated.”