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As practices run long, heat is focus

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Football players aren't the only ones feeling the heat.

That's why water bottles, hats and sunscreen are mandatory for band camp at most high schools, and 10-minute breaks each hour are a must for cheerleaders.

These precautions are to stave off heat exhaustion, which could lead to heatstroke, which could lead to death. It's an issue that affects students who practice outdoors now and in August, arguably the hottest months of the year.

"Sometimes they'll be sent home if they don't have their water bottles," said Janet Bahr, whose son plays the tuba for the Tarpon Springs High School band, where practice can last from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. "Those are grueling practices. You can't mess around with this heat."

Bahr, other parents and school officials point to last year _ when Minnesota Viking lineman Korey Stringer and several college football players died after practicing in extreme temperatures _ as a warning.

"Everybody became more careful after the Vikings player died," said Julius Wynn, the athletic director for Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. "We met with the coaches about that, especially football. Now they have open water breaks whenever they want to . . . Coaches make everybody take a break."

Today, the Citrus County School Board will consider buying $700 worth of wet-bulb thermometers to help coaches gauge when heat and humidity levels are high.

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body overheats. First, the muscles cramp, then a person becomes dizzy and might throw up. Heatstroke follows, as the body loses the ability to create sweat, which is a natural cooling mechanism. As the body's temperature rises to 106 degrees and above, the person could pass out, and the heat might lead to brain damage.

The only way to battle it is to stay cool and hydrated. Pinellas County athletes are told to drink water day and night, while the school district ensures that certified athletic trainers are on hand at every school to watch over the students.

The Florida School Music Association notifies band leaders to watch for dizzy students or those who stop sweating.

"You would have to be concerned with this if you live in Florida," said Jeanne Reynolds, the director of music and theater for Pinellas schools. "This is not something that we just notice for band camp; it's for the entire season."

Some schools pass out a "Band Camp Survival Guide," reminding students to sit out a session if they feel faint and to drink before they get thirsty. Others have parents on hand as "spotters" to watch for sick kids.

There haven't been major heat exhaustion problems recently, said Bob Hosack, the athletic director for Pinellas County Schools. Just in case, coaches and physical education teachers are given instructions.

"It is ungodly hot out there and will be in a couple of weeks when they start practicing on (Aug.) 12th," Hosack said. "We do have trainers, and we hope that they follow the advice that they're given. We tell them, No. 1, that they have got to make sure there's plenty of fluids available, and they need to give breaks periodically to let kids cool down."

No matter the activity, it is most important for students to drink water, not soda, said Paul Hicks, the certified athletic trainer consultant who makes athletic recommendations for Pinellas schools. Staying hydrated slows the effect that extreme heat can have on the human body.

"An athlete can move into heatstroke quickly," Hicks warns. "We may think they're in the muscle cramp stage, then they'll completely skip heat exhaustion and go into heatstroke."

Hicks said he wished more athletes would start their days with a full glass of water and stay away from caffeine, which encourages the body to shed liquids. Hicks said downing a quart of water a half hour before practice is not the answer.

"The body will shed all that water," Hicks said. "The key is to hydrate all day long."

Largo High School cheerleader Ashley Dionne, 17, watches the girls on her squad and makes sure they take frequent breaks.

"We practice outside twice a week for two hours each day," Dionne said. "We usually take it slow. We do stunts in the shade and make sure everybody has a water break."

Dionne's mother, Janet Dean, worries about it, too. Recently, Dean's stepson, who plays football for Clearwater Central Catholic High School, became ill during practice. The coaches were watching, Dean said, and made sure her son took a long break.

Now Dean tells Ashley to stop practice if the heat gets too intense.

"I do tell her, if you feel faint or it's getting to you, that you say, "No, I can't do it anymore.' "

_ Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or

Playing hard, staying cool

How to avoid heat exhaustion:

Drink water all day, not just before practice.

Headaches, weakness, dizziness, nausea, faintness, disorientation and cramping are all signs of heat exhaustion.

Call 911 if anyone passes out on the field. Do not give them fluids. Meanwhile, move the person to a cooler environment and make every attempt to cool them off with ice in the armpits, ice-cold towels or even wet T-shirts.

High heat and high humidity lead to high heat indexes, which lead to increased chances of heat exhaustion. Coaches and students in outdoor activities should use common sense and let their bodies tell them when they have had enough.

The danger zone starts when the outside temperature is 85 degrees and the humidity is above 60 percent.

Parents should keep soda and coffee away from their student athletes.

Athletes must practice outdoors to get their bodies acclimated to the higher temperatures.

Wear light-colored clothing, hats and sunscreen when practicing outdoors.

Source: Pinellas County Schools and Florida Division of Emergency Management

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Baritone player Seth Wise practices backward marching drills in the heat recently with other members of the Osceola High School marching band during practice. Some band members practice all day.