How to Gear Your Child Up for the Gridiron

Whether your son is gearing up for his first year of city league flag football or preparing for his senior season on the varsity high school team, kids and parents all over North Texas are eagerly anticipating the start of another football season. In a state where Friday night lights don’t just mean a television show and the stadiums are big enough to accommodate entire city populations, football is unquestionably king.

While football may be the Lone Star State’s most popular sport, it is perhaps also its most punishing. Teams begin two-a-days in the sweltering heat of August before school even starts up, followed by daily after-school practices and games on Fridays (or Saturdays). Concerns about concussions, heat illnesses and severe dehydration are real and should be taken seriously.

According to a special report from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) on heat stress and injury risk in youth football, players can safely prepare for a return to strenuous activity by gradual and repeated exposure to training intensity and volume, heat stress and the insulating properties of the football uniform. The authors state that while not all heat illnesses can be avoided, the number of cases could be significantly reduced through deliberate attention to progressive training.

Most high school and college heat-related deaths occur in the first four days of preseason practice, with the first and second days carrying the highest risk, and are seemingly related to players’ lack of acclimatization to the high level of activity in the heat and humidity. Additionally, the report states that prompt onsite recognition of the signs and symptoms of heat stroke and subsequent treatment may save lives.

Parents can educate their players on the signs of heat illness so they can call their own timeout if they are experiencing symptoms or call for help if a teammate is in distress. Hallmarks of mild heat illness include heat rash, swelling, cramps and dizziness, while the more serious heat exhaustion will result in excessive sweating, dizziness, clammy skin, nausea, vomiting, excessive fatigue and mild temperature elevations. Heat stroke, which includes a temperature of 103°F or above, changes in mental status, a rapid pulse and possible unconsciousness, is the most severe heat illness and a serious medical emergency.

Another consideration for the health and safety of football players is their weight, or more specifically, their overabundance of weight. While many players want to bulk up, research shows that obesity and heat illness do not mix.

A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 47.1 percent of high school football players are overweight or obese, while 64.7 percent of football players sustaining a heat illness were either overweight or obese. Obesity is a proven risk factor for heat-related issues because fat decreases heat loss.

Proper hydration is also a crucial part of keeping football players off the sidelines and on the field. The ACSM provides the following tips on hydration for athletes exercising in extreme heat:

  • Maintain hydration by matching fluid intake with water lost through sweat.
  • Drink water throughout the day (at least half of your body weight in ounces).
    • Before practice: 7-10 oz. 20 minutes before exercise
    • During practice: 8-10 oz. every 15 minutes
    • Within two hours after practice: 24 oz. for every pound lost
  • For practices lasting longer than 90 minutes, an 8-10 oz. sports drink can be consumed to replace electrolytes lost through sweat.
  • Avoid drinks containing caffeine, carbonation or alcohol.
  • Hydration can be monitored by observing the color of the urine, which should be clear to light yellow.
  • Body weight taken before and after practice can be used to determine if adequate amounts of fluids are being consumed between practices and to determine if unsafe (greater than 2 percent of body weight) weight loss has occurred during practice.

In addition to drinking enough water, maintaining a healthy diet will help improve an athlete’s performance. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that active teenage boys need between 3,000 and 4,000 calories a day, which should come from quality sources like fruit, veggies, whole-grain breads and cereals, low-fat dairy, lean proteins and heart-healthy fats.

Parents can help their sons make smart eating choices by stocking up on healthy grab-and-go snacks, preparing wholesome food at home and reviewing the school lunch menu together to help him make smart choices. Focus on making sure they consume plenty of carbohydrates (muscle fuel) before and after practices and games, protein to help build muscles, and healthy, calorie-boosting snacks.

Suggested protein choices include lean meat, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, beans and lentils, while healthy, portable snacks/drinks might include sports drinks, juice boxes, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, granola bars or fig bars.

Last but certainly not least, concussions are a serious consideration for youth and teenage football players. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following danger signs and symptoms for concussions and recommends treatment as soon as possible if an athlete shows one or more symptoms:

  • One pupil larger than the other.
  • Drowsiness or inability to wake up.
  • A headache that gets worse and does not go away.
  • Slurred speech, weakness, numbness or decreased coordination.
  • Repeated vomiting or nausea, convulsions or seizures.
  • Unusual behavior, increased confusion, restlessness or agitation.
  • Loss of consciousness, no matter how brief.

Athletes may be hesitant to report concussion symptoms for fear of losing a starting position or playing time, but continuing to play through a concussion can lead to a longer recovery and can make them more susceptible to another concussion. (Read more about athletic concussions in a story from last fall.)

Keep your football player safe this season by ensuring he is educated about proper hydration and nutrition, physically prepared for the return to strenuous activity, and aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion. If he’s physically prepared for a return to the game, all you’ll have to worry about is … well, everything else.

To learn more about concussion treatment and programs with Texas Health Resources, please visit: https://www.texashealth.org/sports-medicine/Pages/Sports-Injuries/Concussion.aspx

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