Tory Reeves currently begins practice for his Starkville High’s cross-country team at 6 each morning. With midday temperatures reaching record highs, the coach recently decided that early practices were the best option for his sport—an idea that he implemented to keep his athletes safe during the hottest portion of their season.
“It’s a fall sport, but it’s really a summer start because you need to be running, preparing the body and getting ready for the fall season of cross country,” Reeves told the Mississippi Free Press. “But it’s just so hot, and what we do is hard. We go out for long runs, and it’s hard to break it up and have water breaks or so many breaks within a certain timeframe.”
With the risk of heat-related illnesses a concern as athletes return to practice, the Mississippi High School Activities Association has taken measures to boost safety for athletes and coaches. MHSAA began mandating the use of wet bulb globe temperature, or WBGT, readings for determining the safety of outdoor practices on June 23. All state high-school outdoor athletic programs must measure WBGT and make necessary practice modifications depending on the readings.
Mississippi High School Activities Association Executive Director Rickey Neaves said the organization has recommended the use of WBGT for the past five years. The organization endorsed its use after reviewing the recommendations and work of the Korey Stringer Institute. Former NFL offensive tackle Korey Stringer died from complications caused by heat stroke during the Vikings’ training camp in 2001. The institute created in his memory conducts studies on sports with the mission “to provide research, education, advocacy and consultation to maximize performance, optimize safety and prevent sudden death.”
Three separate thermometers measure ambient temperature, relative humidity, wind and solar radiation from the sun to determine WBGT readings.
“This (measurement) gives the best overall estimate of how severe that heat stress is going to be to the participants while they’re doing outdoor activities,” Neaves told the Mississippi Free Press.
Although recognition of heat-related symptoms has improved, they are still often overlooked. The National Federation of State High School Associations lists exertional heat illnesses as the leading cause of preventable death in high-school athletics. It cited National Center for
Catastrophic Sport Injury Research statistics that recorded 28 high-school football-player deaths from EHS between 2008 and 2017 in its position statement on heat acclimation and heat illness. The statement includes recommendations for coaches on minimizing risk and treating symptoms.
MHSAA’s new regulations add a layer of protection for both coaches and athletes. The specific guidelines remove the pressure and pushback of coaches and administrators in deciding when to make changes to practice plans. It also helps ensure that students are practicing in the most optimal conditions.
“We’re always concerned about the safety and health and welfare of our student athletes, and this is just another way of protecting them from all the heat-stress-related injuries,” Neaves said. “It also protects not only our student athletes, but our coaching staffs, officials and everyone else involved.”
The mandates add no extra financial burden to schools. The MHSAA website lists several free apps that coaches and schools can use to measure WBGT. Some districts are even investing in more costly unified systems for their athletic programs.
“Our AD got us a weather station on top of our press box at the football stadium … that gives you that wet bulb globe temperature,” Reeves said. “And every coach on campus has an app, Perry Weather, that will update us anytime that number changes. You get a text to your phone, and when they send it, it’s exactly what they say on MHSAA.”
Schools are still required to continue many of the heat-safety procedures that were already in place such as acclimating athletes to heat, providing proper hydration and keeping ice baths available. Coaches are also encouraged to be aware of any underlying medical conditions that could put specific athletes at higher risks. Both Neaves and Reeves say that athletic programs are widely welcoming the new regulations.
“We all kind of understand it is getting hotter,” Reeves said of himself and his fellow coaches. “We’ve got to learn, adapt and change.”
Scientific studies indicate that human-induced climate change may have contributed to these unusually high temperatures. Over the past 30 days, more than 3,000 heat records have been broken in the United States.