Beat the heat and playing it cool: How can YOU keep your athletes safe during a heat wave?

As the hot weather begins, practicing and playing sports for kids and young adults can become dangerous. Heat illness during practice or competition is the leading cause of death and disability among US high school athletes. Sudden onset of symptoms combined with a lack of preparedness can change an ordinary practice into a life or death situation. In 2018, 19 year-old Jordan McNair died from heat stroke that occurred during practice. Prior to the incident, McNair was a seemingly healthy offensive lineman for the University of Maryland's football team. The temperature at the time of practice when the incident occurred was 80 degrees with 71 percent humidity. You may be wondering how can this happen? Recent studies are showing the intensity of the workout can be just as important as the heat index. Teammates who watched McNair that day could see that he was struggling in practice, yet he was told to push harder, faster, keep going. As he collapsed and seized on the field, EMS was called, but it was too late. He died 15 days later. You may ask... what can you do to make your sport practices and games safer for your athletes in hot weather?


  1. Acclimatize to heat gradually. Practices for the first 14 days should be shorter and less intense. Athletes should be encouraged to initiate their own conditioning program several months prior to the beginning of the season. During the predicted hottest days of a heat wave, practice and games should be scheduled during the cooler parts of the day.

  2. Account for heat and humidity. Both the temperature and relative humidity should be taken into account in determining the length of practice sessions. Various international and national medical and sports associations recommend that if the sum of the temperature and relative humidity are greater than or equal to 160, special precautions must be taken. If the sum is greater than 180, cancelling practice is recommended. These recommendations can vary with the type of sports activity, age of participants, and location of sporting event.

  3. Provide for frequent breaks. During hot weather you may want to adjust the intensity and duration of practice, providing frequent rest periods (at least 15 minutes per hour of practice). Athletes should rest in shaded areas; hats and helmets should be removed, and jerseys should be loosened or removed.

  4. Rehydrate. Cold water or sports drinks should be available in unlimited quantities to players. Scheduled water breaks should be strictly enforced.

  5. Identify athletes at greater risk. Athletes with the greatest risk of heat illness include younger participants, athletes who have an acute or chronic illness, and those who have history of heat illness.

  6. Know your staff. Is everyone on board with safety? Does your team have an emergency action plan (EAP) in place? Do you have a safety officer who monitors changing practice conditions?

  7. Listen to your players parents. Parents know their kids best. If an athlete has had a prior heat illness incident, they may not want to report it. Make sure there is open communication with parents and that all preseason medical forms are completed, reviewed, and accessible.

  8. Learn the warning signs. It is imperative that all coaches, parents, and players are aware of signs of dehydration and heat illness. An athlete exhibiting any symptoms such as nausea, confusion, dizziness, or sudden onset of headache, should be immediately removed from practice, cooled down, and placed in a shaded environment.

Here is a great image from the CDC showing all heat-related illnesses

Recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics include:

  1. "Community and team/school physicians as well as athletic directors, community parks and recreation programs, and youth sport governing bodies should emphasize comprehensive awareness, education, and implementation of effective exertional heat-illness risk-reduction strategies to coaches and their staff, athletic trainers, teachers, administrators, and others who oversee or assist with exercising children and adolescents and youth sports, especially for those involved with youth and preseason high school American football.

  2. Trained personnel and facilities capable of effectively treating all forms of heat illness, especially exertional heat stroke by rapidly lowering core body temperature, should be readily available on site during all youth athletic activities and community programs that involve vigorous physical activity and are held in the heat.

  3. Children and adolescents should be regularly educated on the merits of proper preparation, ample hydration, honest reporting, and effectively managing other factors under their control, such as recovery and rest, which will directly affect exercise-heat tolerance and safety.