Most of the county’s football coaches will be focusing on two words during preseason football practice.
No, its not offense and defense, or wins and losses. And not even the phrase “state championship.”
With temperatures in the 90s and the heat index at more than 100 degrees recently, hydration and acclimation are top priorities for coaches as they guide their teams through two-a-day practices for the next week or so.
“Acclimation is just as important as hydration,” Tucker coach Franklin Stephens said. “During the summer they’re in the different passing leagues and camps, and they get accustomed to what they’re going to run into in August.”
Getting teenagers to remain active during the summer may be more difficult than it sounds.
“Things are different these days,” said Dunwoody coach Jim Showfety. “Kids aren’t outside as much as they used to be. If you’re not used to the heat and you’re in the air conditioning all day, it can really be a shock to your system. We want kids to be outdoors just to be accustomed to the heat.”
Even if they are used to the sweltering temperatures, coaches try to make sure their athletes are well hydrated by the time practice or games roll around.
Since 1995, 33 football players nationally have died from heat stroke nationally, according to an annual report at the University of North Carolina.
Keeping players hydrated all day, making sure players maintain a proper diet, practicing in cooler parts of the day and having plenty of water available during practice are a few ways coaches can keep players safe during the heat of summer practice.
The DeKalb County School System follows guidelines set by the National Federation of State High School Associations pertaining to when it is too hot to practice.
Most coaches will avoid the hottest part of the day this month. Stephens will hold Tucker’s practices at 8 to 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. to start the preseason. Showfety, because of conflicting schedules with some of his lay coaches, will practice twice beginning late in the afternoon.
“You don’t wait for practice to start to hydrate,” Stone Mountain coach Dante Ferguson said. “You’ve got to make it a constant thing. Hydrate all week to get ready for Friday night. You can tell by the way a guy is acting whether he’s hydrated or not.”
Coaches preach safety but it ultimately is up to the athletes to follow certain guidelines to make sure they are hydrated at practice and games.
“Some of the kids on their own bring water bottles to workouts,” Stephens said. “Through previous experience, they learn what their bodies need.”
Dunwoody players got a first-hand look at what can happen when players are not properly hydrated.
“You can tell a player what to expect but sometimes they learn the hard way,” Showfety said. “We had several cramp up at a passing tournament earlier in the summer. They learned. We tell them to drink water from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed.”
High school football has become a year-round activity, which makes hydration more vital than a few decades ago. After the season is over in December, players can participate in voluntary workouts in the winter. Spring practice takes up two weeks in May, then voluntary summer workouts begin two months before regular preseason practice starts in August.
When players do succumb to cramps in games or practices, teams have remedies nearby. Bananas, which are rich in potassium, combat cramps and pickle juice is used on the sidelines to help players recover from cramps.
Area coaches are hoping this preseason won’t be as brutal as 2007 when heat index restrictions caused teams to reschedule practices during cooler parts of the day or even cancel practice.
“When I was at Chamblee that year I remember getting e-mails every day from the National Weather Service and we had to call off practice,” Showfety said.
Water is recommended as the main source of hydration, but small amounts of electrolyte-based fluids like Gatorade and Powerade also can be used, according to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“We try to get the older guys to lead by example and not drink soda but stick with water and Powerade,” Ferguson said. “It’s a scary thing but we haven’t had a heat-related injury since I’ve been here. I believe in frequent water breaks and we always have a trainer standing by in case someone needs water.”