Amid Extreme Heat, How Will Climate Change Impact Student Athletes?

With temperatures rising and extreme heat becoming more common, school sports could get hotter and more dangerous for student-athletes.

Climate change and global warming are quite literally cooking our planet. This summer’s extreme heat in the U.S. and across the globe is impacting every facet of our life, including sports.

And while the pros get paid to suffer in the heat, what about the next generation of sports stars who practice under the grueling summer sun at sports camps or participate in taxing two-a-day workouts ahead of the school year?

How exactly will our planet’s rising temperatures impact rising student-athletes in the future?

“Gen Z is really focused on this and I think in large part because they realize that so much of their lives are going to be changed because of our warming planet,” said LX News Climate storyteller Chase Cain. “Every year in the United States, more than 67,000 people end up having to go to the emergency room because of heat, and certainly some of those are athletes. And so as our summers get hotter, as these heat waves happen more frequently and become more intense, we're only going to see those numbers increase, especially if we're not educating people and having conversations about when it's safe to be outside exercising or practicing and when it's not.”

James Hillhouse is used to challenging practices as a high school football player in Connecticut, but he’s noticed a difference during this summer’s practice.

Especially with this last heat wave, it’s really hard out there in pads and 95 degree weather,” Hillhouse said. “I mean, the past four years, I’ve never seen camps or temperatures like what we just saw the last week.”

With scorching temps, Hillhouse said it’s even forced his football coaches to reevaluate and alter their practice schedule, including the stereotypical “two-a-day” practice.

I know a lot of dads of some kids that are, like, when they played football back in high school, they’d do a lot of two-a-days, and I know that when we start to not have two-a-days, the dads kind of always comment on it. And I think that now it’s a lot different like especially [with] the heat,” Hillhouse said. “Maybe the global warming hasn’t changed too, too much, but it’s definitely changed enough to affect people and the students and athletes out on the field.”

For many of these younger athletes, knowing how to protect themselves in extreme heat isn’t always clear cut. That’s why it’s important to recognize what heat illness is and the signs that an athlete needs to stop working out, said Dr. Robert Huggins, a specialist in athlete performance at the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute. The Institute provides “ research, education, advocacy and consultation to maximize performance, optimize safety and prevent sudden death for the athlete, warfighter and laborer. “

“Heatstroke, which is the most extreme level of heat illness, involves mental status dysfunction. Essentially, cognitively, our brains aren’t functioning well,” Huggins said. “Heat exhaustion is about fluid loss. You’ll see inability to kind of continue exercise, feeling hot, exhausted, fatigue. Again could be nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, combative confusion. Essentially get in the shade. Anything that might be inhibiting your body's ability to sweat, take that stuff off. Cool using ice towels, a cold shower. But the best is getting someone in an ice tub filled with ice and water that will cool them most rapidly and get them to safety quickest.”

Speaking of fluids, hydration is key and frequent water breaks are a must, says Dr. Huggins, especially when it comes to the crucial work-to-rest ratio in the heat for student-athletes.

Huggins says every hour of practice should include at least four separate four-minute breaks, and more if the exercise session and heat are more intense.

But picking the perfect time to actually practice is also important.

Usually early morning hours, late evening hours are when we're going to have the less stressful conditions,” Huggins said.

Tommy Farrell, a high school football coach in New Jersey, opts for the early hours to ensure his players are safe.

“As coaches, we try to make sure they're off the field by 9:45 in the morning so we can beat the heat,” Farrell said. “So right now, we're actually one hour in the weight room, which is air conditioned, and then we're one hour on the field with no equipment, just cleats on. So even if it is humid, they're not out there more than an hour.”

But as the planet continues to get warmer, trying to find the right pockets of time to exercise and beat the heat might be even more difficult moving forward.

“As heat waves are getting more intense and they're happening more frequently, it's certainly going to impact student-athletes who often, they finish their school day and then what? They go outside and practice right after. And that's the hottest part of the day,” Cain said.

Cain also points to one solution that might not be as effective as it once was: evening practices. "One of the things climate change is doing is it's keeping temperatures from dropping as low at night as they once did. So it's actually warmer at night than it used to be. We're actually seeing a bigger change there than we are during the afternoon. So that's going to mean that there are fewer and fewer hours where these athletes can safely practice outside.”

That also brings up an even larger issue in the conversation surrounding climate change: its socioeconomic impact.

“Look just at the infrastructure of what a school looks like. Drive past a private school or a public school in a wealthy neighborhood. You'll probably see lots of grass, lots of trees, and maybe they have the money to have an indoor air-conditioned practice facility,” Cain said. “Then compare that with a public school in an area that is poorer. That's going to have an impact on the student-athletes who are out there on the pavement or on the field with little shade trying to practice in this extreme heat.”

As companies add more emissions to the atmosphere and politicians mull over solutions to the climate crisis, what can we doing moving forward to help protect student-athletes in extreme heat, at least in the short term?

Help has to come first from the folks in charge, like the schools and athletic staff.

From the organizational side, it's monitoring the environmental conditions,” Huggins said.

“The organization should also be providing services in the form of an athletic trainer or a qualified health care professional to put in place policies or recommendations for them to ensure their safety.”

That also means basic medical training for these coaching staffs too.

“You wouldn't go to school without a nurse, right?” Huggins said. “Not many coaches have medical background or training as a paramedic, EMT, athletic trainer or sports medicine physician to be able to take care of these kids.”

For Huggins, the kids deserve care.

Every athlete is afforded the right to be able to recommend or request better conditions for playing the sport which they love.”