Heat illness awareness on minds of coaches, administrators as temperatures rise

The tropical storm has passed through Connecticut, and in its wake came tropical-like weather just as high school football players prepare for their first real scrimmages.

It’s the type of week for which a law enacted this summer is intended. Beginning with the 2022-23 school year, every intramural or interscholastic coach will have to complete an annual course in exertional heat illness awareness, similar to the state’s concussion and cardiac-arrest awareness requirements, and athletes and their parents will also need at least to review material on heat illness.

But the CIAC, said executive director Glenn Lungarini, is ahead of the game: It has worked with medical and related organizations across the state on policies, and its medical handbook already has extensive information on heat-illness awareness.

The handbook also includes a sample emergency action plan, another state mandate for each school come 2022.

“We do believe the heat-illness bill is a strong step forward for protecting student-athletes by requiring safety protocols, and that other resources are available,” Lungarini said.

“When it comes to heat illness, Connecticut has been one of the states that has been out front of heat-illness safety protocol. We have the great fortune of having the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. Their CEO, Doug Casa, has been a great partner and resource for us as we looked at the issue prior to legislation and in the development of the legislation.”

Named for the Minnesota Vikings lineman who died from exertional heatstroke during a 2001 practice, the Korey Stringer Institute’s mission “is to provide research, education, advocacy and consultation to maximize performance, optimize safety and prevent sudden death for the athlete, warfighter and laborer,” says its website.

Connecticut ranks 39th out of 51 (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia) in the Korey Stringer Institute’s state high school sports safety policy evaluation, but the latest study showed that 38 states, including Connecticut, had increased their scores since 2016.

Coaches currently require state certification, receiving a five-year permit that requires continuing education to renew. They need concussion training and certification every five years as well and training in recognition of other medical emergencies.

Temperatures reached near 90 degrees across the state Tuesday with high humidity. Similar temperatures and humidity are expected Thursday and Friday as well.

Football practice in pads wasn’t permitted until Saturday. Wednesday was the first day for scrimmages, and the CIAC’s schedule shows at least 19 of them. At least three scrimmages (West Haven at New Canaan, Cheshire at Darien and East Lyme at Notre Dame-West Haven) were canceled due to the heat.

According to the CIAC medical handbook, football should not practice in pads if the temperature is over 84 degrees and no sports should practice outside if the heat exceeds 86 degrees. If it is over 81, football players are restricted to helmet, shoulder pads and shorts during practice.

Those are just guidelines from the CIAC and it is up to each school to cancel or postpone scrimmages based on weather, including heat.

“We do not have any bylaws specific to temperature,” Lungarini said. “We offer guidance but those decisions are made on a local school level.”

The CIAC sent a reminder email to schools regarding guidelines for practicing in the heat Wednesday, but Lungarini said there was not order to not practice.

“We sent out reminders on heat and asked them to consider the heat index in regards to practice,” Lungarini said. “The heat index can differ greatly in the state so it could be determined to be too hot in one part of the state but OK to play in another.”

Practice begins in cross country, soccer and field hockey on Thursday. Clouds might offer some respite on Friday before temperatures drop to the mid-70s during the day on Saturday. Programs playing boys golf in the fall began practice last week with earlier CIAC tournaments than the other sports.

The Korey Stringer Institute (based at UConn) is a national leader on heat safety and exertional heat illness. We are fortunate to have them in Connecticut. As practices get underway for fall sports, here is a list of KSI's important prevention strategies. @K_S_Institute pic.twitter.com/OlPHMfBW1L

— CIAC Sports (@ciacsports) August 17, 2021

Hand football coach Erik Becker said he has spent five years studying high athletic performance, conditioning players for football and creating good lifelong habits. But their health and safety is most important to him.

“High performance is the world of five-minute water breaks. I’m all about high performance,” Becker said after Tuesday morning’s joint practice with Greenwich at the Surf Club. The temperature there was in the low 80s, and it might’ve felt around 90 if not for the breeze from Long Island Sound.

“We’re going to give kids time to recover. I try really hard to emphasize macronutrients and water with my guys.”

Becker said Hand has a cooling tub and that one of his players used it during a recent practice.

The CIAC donated tubs, an effective first treatment for athletes feeling the effects of heat, last year to 74 schools that needed them, an initiative spearheaded by assistant director Joe Velardi, Lungarini said.

Lungarini said COVID-19 has disrupted the process of getting the tubs, but the CIAC plans to acquire them for another 10-15 schools.

Greenwich coach Anthony Morello said parents and sponsors have kept players nourished and hydrated between sessions with things like sports drinks, orange slices and bananas.

“It’s really more the time before practice starts,” Morello said. “We make sure they’re taken care of. The office is always open to them, and we make sure we have things available on the sideline.

“We don’t have a defined break, but we build it into our schedule so that each position group gets a little time.”

Scott Ericson conttributed to this report.

mfornabaio@ctpost.com; @fornabaioctp