With the solstice behind us and the sun warming up for the summer, young athletes tackling the heat for sports practice need to take extra precautions to remain hydrated and have ways to cool down when needed. During the hottest months of the year, heatstroke causes the death of a young athlete every other day. The greatest tragedy is that such incidences are entirely preventable. However, ignorance surrounds the need for proper hydration. Sometimes, water breaks are frowned upon for taking time off the field. Other times, athletes may undermine the need for breaks, assuming that because they don’t “feel” thirsty or tired they can continue playing without risk.
But just as athletes are expected to put their all in improving game performance, so should they be expected to maintain hydration.
The Dangers of Dehydration
Most people assume thirst is a good indicator of dehydration. But while this precursor to heat stroke is easily abated, its common symptoms—dry mouth, tiredness, dry skin, and lightheadedness—often go ignored or mistaken for other issues. But dehydration is no small inconvenience.
Dehydration can lead to complications like hypothermia, delirium, and unconsciousness. As your body uses water to hydrate and cool itself through sweat, dehydration makes it harder to maintain safe body temperature. Typical heatstroke occurs when the body’s temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Just as with a severe fever, at these temperatures athletes are at risk of brain damage through a seizure. Organ failure can also occur, leading to death.
Signs of Severe Dehydration
When on the field, thirst oftentimes gets thrown on the backburner. However, nausea, dizziness, confusion, flushed skin, and shallow breathing are telling signs that it’s time for a break. A lack of sweat is also an important sign of overheating.
Another sign of dehydration that may be ignored while on the field, especially in contact sports, are persistent headaches.
How to Prevent Dehydration
Treating dehydration starts off the field, at home. Athletes lose more than water while practicing, so while drinking plenty of water at home is important, so are sports drinks that contain the salts and sugars normally lost during exercise. Eating protein and complex carbohydrates before exercise can also help your body run more efficiently. A few good snacks for athletes on the go can be whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, and Greek yogurt with fruit.
Beating Dehydration on the Field
While emergency personnel is rarely on watch during practice, it doesn’t take an expert to keep athletes cool. Both professional and amateur leagues have adopted professional cool misting fans to control athlete body temperature in the summer. These systems were highly publicized in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and have since then become a staple on the field. Similar misting systems are used at restaurants as well.
Another step you can take to safeguard athletes is to have a designated, shaded area for resting. You can serve cool water and apply cool washcloths to the face and neck. If an athlete is showing signs of severe dehydration, provide them with a slightly longer break and have their legs elevated above head level.
It is important to understand the risks associated with dehydration and to take proper precautions to prevent it. While performance on the field is vital to a team’s success during the season, proper hydration and cool-down methods can keep team members performing at their best, and most of all, safe.