FOOTBALL: Safety changes designed to keep athletes safe during the heat of summer workouts

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Cold water submergence tubs are now available for high school athletes who could be suffering from heat stroke

James Slaton was at the Florida High School Athletic Association offices in Gainesville when the mother of Zachary Martin-Polsenberg walked in with a photo of her son, a football player who died participating in a summer football workout.

Laurie Martin Giordano is responsible for some of the safety changes made during the past two years by the FHSAA and area high schools.

Martin-Polsenberg, a junior offensive lineman at Fort Myers Riverdale High, suffered heat stroke during a workout at the school in June 2017. After 11 days on life support in a Miami hospital, the 16-year-old Martin-Polsenberg died.

Last month, an incoming freshman at Tampa Middletown High collapsed and died during an on-campus conditioning workout.

According to InsideClimate News, since 1995 three football players a year die as a direct result of playing, practicing or conditioning. Most of them are high schoolers.

“It’s definitely high on the radar, especially with our heat here,” said Slaton, the director of athletics for Sarasota County.

Almost immediately after her son died, Laurie Martin Giordano proposed that the FHSAA require cold water submergence tubs to be available for players who could be suffering from heat stroke while an ambulance is dispatched.

“I felt like I couldn’t just sit in my grief and have it happen again,” Giordano told InsideClimate News. “I don’t think I could live with that, knowing that I hadn’t done anything to try to make for change.”

New Sarasota High strength and conditioning coach Kameron Jones, who spent two years as a strength and conditioning intern at the University of Alabama, said “being in Florida, it’s way hotter than Alabama, there’s definitely a need for them here.”

Just more than a year ago, the FHSAA strongly suggested schools have tubs, but did not mandate it.

“The resistance came from the FHSAA lawyers saying if you mandate this, you have to make sure this happens. If it doesn’t happen and you mandate it, you’re setting yourself up for a lawsuit,” Slaton said. “That’s why it’s not mandated but recommended.”

However, all high schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties are now equipped with tubs or troughs.

“The most recent research, in the first few minutes if you get the kids into the cold water tub you have a 100 percent survival rate and can get the kids out of there without brain damage,” Manatee County director of athletics Jason Montgomery said.

Montgomery, who attended the most recent FHSAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee Meeting, said troughs can be purchased at Tractor Supply for about $150 per tub.

“For cost to reward, even if you don’t have to use them, you know you have the ability,” Montgomery said.

And plenty of other precautions are being taken before a cold water tub is needed.

Not only all coaches but also student-athletes are required to take the online education course on “Heat Illness Prevention” posted by the National Federation of State High School Association every year. All coaches are required to take a CPR class every two years.

“It’s a lot more conscious as information grows, so is the awareness,” Sarasota High football coach Spencer Hodges.

Student/athletes are also required to have physicals and updated insurance, even during the summer.

“The state requires you have an athletic physical on file during the season,” Slaton said. “We required all of our kids to have a current physical during offseason workouts.”

Other measures are also in place for athletes who train outdoors.

Most summer football workout sessions are scheduled for the morning, not in the heat of the day.

“We make sure we are not out there for more than 30 minutes at a time in the heat,” Hodges said. “There’s no water-makes-you-weak mentality, like when I played more than 10 years ago.”

Sarasota High has two five-gallon containers of water and Gatorade, power bars and protein shakes are available during workouts and protein bars for the post-workout.

“We take care of the nutrition aspect,” Hodges said. “We’re making sure the nutrition part is as important as the workout.”

Running drills and workouts are also geared to specific player groups.

“We’ll do some team running, but the big guys do different running than the skill guys,” said Hodges, beginning his second season as head coach. “Our younger kids don’t do nearly the intensity of workouts that older kids do.”

Another big change is athletics trainers, who are now year-round employees in Sarasota and Manatee counties, are often present for workouts, even in the summer.

“Not every practice, but typically in the morning, we have a trainer on site,” Montgomery said.

In addition, AEDs (automated external defibrillators) for anyone experiencing sudden cardiac arrest are readily available.

Montgomery plans to have his trainers communicate with emergency medical technicians (EMTs) in anticipation of potential incidents.

In the past, the first order of business was to transport a student/athlete to the hospital. Now, it is getting the athlete’s core temperature under control before transport.

“That’s your two biggest killers of student/athletes: cardiac arrest and heat exhaustion,” Montgomery said. “You always think about it, but at the same time we’ve been extremely proactive. I like to think we would handle these situations differently. That’s in no way to say it couldn’t happen.”

“We’re one of the hottest places in the country,” Slaton said. “It’s definitely something we worry about, talk about. We make sure everybody is trained. With that heat illness prevention training, it talks a lot about preventing that. It talks about a progressive conditioning plan.”

Summer training does have its benefits for student/athletes. Getting in better shape and acclimating to the summer heat can make for an easier transition when practice for fall sports begins July 29.

“The better shape you’re in, the better you are able to handle those hot conditions,” Slaton said. “You don’t train in the summertime and you come out for football in August, you’re in serious trouble. The summer is huge to get conditioned for the season.”

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