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Editorial: Protecting young athletes

As temperatures soar above 90 degrees, people overseeing summer youth sports shouldn’t need reminders about the dangers of overexertion and heat stroke. The days of coaches mercilessly drilling athletes in extreme heat without breaks or water should be long gone.

According to the National Athletic Trainers Association, one of the first ways to protect young athletes against summer’s soaring temperatures is heat acclimatization. Incredibly, not everyone embraces the concept.

The athletic trainers’ group held a seminar in Salisbury on Saturday as part of the National Sports Media Association’s awards weekend. While most of the weekend was filled with celebration and camaraderie, the speakers at the NATA session focused on  a sobering subject: protecting young athletes.

Will Adams, an expert on the topic from the University of Connecticut, said more than 90 percent of sudden deaths in sports are attributable to four causes: sudden cardiac arrest, exertional heat stroke, head injuries and sickle cell trait. Such deaths are not always preventable, but risks are dramatically reduced when the people in charge of athletic programs adopt evidence-based safety practices. Examples include emergency planning and access to automated external defibrillators (AEDs), heat acclimatization, instruction on proper tackling techniques and sickle cell trait screening.

Preventing sports heat deaths costs nothing, yet for years one or two college athletes would die during each August’s pre-season football practices. Finally, the light bulb went off. The NCAA adopted acclimatization policies in 2003, phasing in activity and protective equipment as players built up tolerance to the heat. There’s been only one heat-related death among college players since, Adams said.

The N.C. High School Athletic Association has clear guidelines on acclimatization, too. Like the NCAA, the high school group limits the frequency and length of early practices and the equipment players should wear. Adams says it’s up to each state association to mandate guidelines; there is no overseeing government body. Among the 16 states that have adopted policies, only one heat-stroke death has occurred, and that was at a Florida school that was not following the guidelines on the first day of practice.

In cases of young athletes dying in the heat, body temperatures of 107 and 109 degrees have been reported.

Hydration is crucial, too. The state association calls for unlimited amounts of water to be available throughout practices, with water/fluid replacement breaks every 20 to 30 minutes.

It’s sad and pointless for youth athletes to die playing the sports they love. Thanks to the National Athletic Trainers Association and other advocates, policies are being put in place to help keep kids alive and healthy, ready to play another day.

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