This time of year, Clint Graham is prone to getting restless even after returning home from a long day at the office.
The Hannibal High School activities director can't take his mind off the welfare of his teams and coaches as they begin fall sports practices Monday in the heat of summer.
“Even though I know we're doing everything possible for the kids, I still sit at home at worry about it and look at my phone numerous times just to make sure and drive out there past the practices if I haven't been there already,” Graham admitted. “It's stressful even if I'm not there. Heaven forbid something were to happen, that's one of my worst nightmares, so that's why we make sure we take care of everything on our end and make sure we're going by the rules.”
To combat extreme heat, Graham and other area activities directors strive to follow guidelines enforced by the Missouri State High School Activities Association, including a 16-day heat acclimatization schedule as well as heat and hydration recommendations.
If the heat index is between 95 and 105 degrees, MSHSAA suggests plans should be implemented to alter outdoor practice conditions. Ideas include longer water breaks, moving indoors or pushing back physical activity to later in the day. If the heat index soars over 105, plans to postpone or reschedule practice should be put in place.
“We are strict when it comes to following those rules,” said Palmyra activities director Brian Wosman. “The good thing about the beginning of the fall practices is that school hasn't started. Usually most of our fall practices start in the morning to beat most of the heat before it gets too warm in the middle of the day.”
Much like during the spring season when rain is frequent, each activities director interviewed by the Courier-Post for this story said they check the weather forecast throughout the day and remain in their coaches' ears about keeping with heat-related protocol.
Mark Twain activities director Josh Lancaster tracks weather by using a smartphone app created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration agency.
“You can plug in location and it can tell you what the heat is and what the heat index is,” Lancaster explained. “I check that daily, and I've pushed the coaches to add that as an app for them to check. Everyday, I check what it's going to be like and I send out a text and an email to all coaches, especially our fall coaches.”
MSHSAA's 16-day heat acclimatization schedule, which begins with the start of practices Monday, outlines a plan to ensure that all athletes maintain healthy heart rates and body temperatures.
Per the official guidelines, “The goal of the acclimatization period is to increase exercise heat tolerance and enhance the ability to exercise safely and effectively in warm and hot conditions.”
During the first five days, athletes may participate in just one practice per day. If a practice is interrupted by heat restrictions, the practice can recommence once conditions are deemed safe, though total practice time should not exceed three hours in one day.
The restrictions arguably make the biggest impact on football teams, as full contact practices may begin no sooner than the sixth day. This is also when two-a-day practices are allowed to begin, though any two-a-day session must be followed by a single practice day.
“During football season, sometimes we just go helmets only,” Wosman said. “We don't do shoulder pads or full pads, we just do helmets. Sometimes it's just shorts and T-shirt depending on how hot it is and what the circumstances are."
The MSHSAA rules stipulate athletes must complete 14 practices before competing in-season. Since teams may not have more than six consecutive practice days, at least 16 calendar days are necessary between the day of first practice and the season's start.
“The heat acclimatization guidelines, they're rules,” Lancaster said. “Obviously, you're primarily looking out for kids. That's always your No. 1 concern. But as a school, if it were reported and they investigated that you were not following those guidelines, you could be subject to some penalties and fines and coaches risk losing the ability to coach. They're not guidelines like tips. They are what you do.”
Lancaster added the guidelines are intended to help the coaches as well as student-athletes.
“We're looking out for kids and I want the coaches to look out for themselves,” he said. “We want to make sure we're taking care of kids, but we also need to make sure we're taking care of ourselves so we can make good decisions and look out for the safety and welfare of our kids.”
Monroe City activities director Cody Leonard mentioned the approach his school has for dealing with the heat doesn't change with practices beginning in July rather than August.
“Everybody makes a big deal of (starting in July), but I don't think it's that big of a deal,” he said. “We're talking two days. Whether you start Aug. 1 or July 31, it really doesn't matter. It's just two days. It's going to be hot, but you've just got to use some common sense and make sure you're using your head on how hot it is, keep an eye on your kids and make sure they've got plenty of water and are staying cool.”
The start date of July 31 is the earliest Leonard and fellow area athletic directors can remember. By choosing that start date, the state football playoffs remain on course to finish by Thanksgiving weekend.
Graham noted the start of fall practices will be pushed back in the future. He expects Hannibal's 2018 fall practices to begin Aug. 6.
“Now the schools have voted to move it back a week (for 2018), because starting in July it's early,” Graham said. “But we'll have to look and see, 'Do we knock a week off the (football) schedule? Or do we go a week after Thanksgiving break?' There are still a lot of things that need to be determined between now and then.”
Just this month, Graham experienced a first he rather wouldn't have. He canceled an evening session of middle school football summer camp on Thursday, July 20.
“This was the first time in 15 years that I've been around that I think we've had to cancel a camp or something in the evening because of the heat,” he said. “I checked at 7:30, and the heat index was still 107.”
That was a prime example of why Hannibal, like many area schools, primarily will hold morning or evening practices to avoid mid-day heat in the weeks leading up to the first day of school in mid-August. If extreme heat persists once school begins, Graham said practice times are subject to change.
With all focus pinned on Monday's start of practices, Leonard admitted he won't make it through the weekend without thinking about how weather may impact plans for the upcoming week.
“We'll be talking all weekend eyeballing what Monday is going to look like, and then we'll touch base all throughout the week,” he said. “Once we're into school, it's non-stop email updates with what the weather looks like and what we've got. If we've got to push practice back once we start school, that's what we do.”