To the delight of many high school players and coaches, temperatures in Pennsylvania were unusually low this August when teams began preseason practices. In fact, with an average daily temperature of 81 degrees, many coaches in our area couldn't recall another preseason camp with such moderate weather. Nonetheless, football programs across the state were ordered to acclimate themselves to the heat by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The "heat-acclimatization rule", which was approved in July, was drafted by both the PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory and the Pennsylvania Athletic Trainers' Society.
According to the PIAA's web site, the rule, which applies only to football, was implemented because of an increase in the fatalities of high school football players due to hot weather. It cited study from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, which states that 41 high school students have died since 1995 due to heat related illness across the country.
The new rule mandates that all players on a team must practice for three days, for three to five hours a day, wearing shoulder pads and shorts the first two days with no contact, and full gear on the third with contact. Schools choosing to practice for the maximum of five hours are required to rest players for two hours between 2-1/2 hour sessions.
Teams were provided the option of starting their heat-acclimatization practices a week early, on August 7. Schools choosing this option were not permitted to allow contact on the third practice, but had the advantage of going full-speed when two-a-day practices on started on Monday, August 12.
All players were required to complete three consecutive heat-acclimatization practices before competing in a scrimmage or a game.
Head coaches were also obligated to create and submit a heat-acclimatization practice plan to their athletic trainers, which were then approved by the school's principal.
As well-intentioned as the rule may be, many coaches in our area feel it may be unnecessary.
"I don't think it made any real difference," Warrior Run head coach Mark Burrows said.
"Many things occur during the summer, and those kids [working out] during the summer are the kids committed to the program, and they are in shape. Then there's kids who don't, and just come out for three days, and they say that will help, but no player is going to get in shape in three days."
Overall, Burrows thought the rule was more related to liability issues between the PIAA and student athletes than it is a practical way to help fight the heat.
"It's just an opportunity for the PIAA to say they did something," he said.
Regardless of his feelings on the heat-acclimatization process, Burrows did say the rule helped his team in the sense that it gave them a jump-start on the season.
Other coaches in our area were more indifferent, but still didn't give the impression that they felt it was completely necessary.
"It didn't really affect us because what we normally do fit into the criteria for the rule," Montoursville head coach J.C. Keefer said.
"For me, it's just one of those rules that come from when a jackass coach drove his kids into the ground and got somebody hurt or killed, so now you have to change the rules to protect everybody."
But Keefer said that the vast majority of coaches don't need a blanket policy to keep their kids protected because they are already making player safety a top concern.
"Knowing all the coaches around here, we use our best judgment," he said. "I don't care if it's heat, or concussions, or a sprained ankle; we all treat these kids with care. We don't want anybody to get hurt."
Keefer's biggest issue with the rule was he said that the PIAA consulted few, if any, coaches before making the change.
"I think the PIAA is doing what it can to keep kids safe, but there's definitely things that need worked out," he said.
"They need more coaches to help make these rules and not some people sitting in an office. The PIAA is doing what it can to create a safe atmosphere, but this was just kind of thrown on us."
South Williamsport head coach Chris Eiswerth, was unsure whether or not a state with Pennsylvania's climate needs a rule like this, but he understands why the PIAA instituted it.
"I know some states, like Texas, really have to battle the heat," he said. "But here in Pennsylvania we start in June and practice outside all the way to August. If you have a serious program your kids are pretty well acclimated by the time camp comes around.
He felt that this rule may have been more effective a few decades ago, when student athletes weren't working out after the season as much as they do nowadays.
"Twenty years ago kids used to get their equipment the day before camp and start practice, then after the season they wouldn't do anything for a year," he said. "But now you have kids hitting the weight room in January and working all the way through summer."
Eiswerth also pointed out that the PIAA might have a new problem on their hands, however. He feels that many teams have taken advantage of the rule, and are simply getting three extra practices they wouldn't have had otherwise.
"I think it was supposed to ease players into camp in a safe manner," he said. "But a lot of schools just took the three days before camp and got the kids going early, and got three extra days of two-a-days, which is interesting."
Despite all of this, Eiswerth believes that the PIAA was justified in instituting the heat-acclimatization rule.
"Overall, it's good to be safe, because you never know. It only takes one time to get a student athlete hurt," said Eiswerth. "As educators we need to keep kids safety in mind.
"I think most Pennsylvania coaches embrace the rule, but I think most of them are already doing a good job taking care of the youngsters,"?said Eiswerth.