The way high school fall sports teams conduct preseason practices is changing.
On June 22, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and the Maryland State Department of Education released a model policy to provide guidance for local school systems regarding a heat acclimatization program for student-athletes.
A new state law — it was implemented Sunday — required all local school systems to formulate specific guidelines for student-athletes to adapt to warm weather conditions mandated the guidelines.
A committee of representatives from the MPSSAA, MSDE, local school systems, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association and physicians formed the model policy. Individual counties are free to institute their own regulations, but they are strongly encouraged to follow the model policy. Fall public school preseason practice is scheduled to begin statewide on Aug. 11.
Ned Sparks, the MPSSAA’s executive director and a member of the committee, was not available for comment by press time. During a phone interview last month, he stressed the importance of safety for student-athletes.
“There has been heightened awareness in regards to player safety over the past few years in regards to concussions and [wrestling] weight certification,” he said. “As we learn more about health and have better research, we can take steps in better protecting the student-athletes. In some cases, it may take developing a new mindset.”
The policy consists of several suggestions, including education, certification and training of coaches, student-athletes, parents and athletic administrators about hydration techniques, environmental and non-environmental risk factors. It also stresses the development of a heat acclimatization timeline and an emergency plan.
The guidelines attempt to balance the need to properly teach safe playing techniques and assimilation into hot weather, according to a press release.
“We already have a lot of good practices in place,” said Perry Baker, Frederick County Public Schools’ athletic supervisor, during an interview last month. He did not return a phone message by press time. “It will be nice to have uniform definitions in regards to practice and recovery time. … The practice structure change is going to alter some coaches’ approach.”
The model policy suggests several equipment restrictions for fall sports. It also notes the heat acclimatization period is individualized. Days in which an athlete does not practice due to rest, injury, illness or any other reason would not count towards the adjustment period.
In football, full pads would not be permitted until the sixth day of practice. Only helmets would be allowed during the first two days and helmets and shoulder pads during days three through five.
In field hockey, goalies could only wear helmets and goalie kickers the first two days before adding a chest protector. Soccer and girls volleyball would have no equipment restrictions.
During the initial five days of practice, only one full practice would be permitted per day with an additional one-hour walk through (no pads, no equipment) session permitted following a mandatory three-hour rest break. Traditional two-a-day practice sessions would not be allowed on consecutive days beginning with the sixth day of practice.
“In general an overall policy for the entire state is long overdue,” Frederick High football coach Vince Ahearn said. “I’m glad heat acclimatization is being investigated and there will be some uniformity throughout the state. … All of the coaches in all sports throughout the state will adapt and make it work. We’ve changed before and will do it again.”