As East High football opens practice on Monday afternoon, there’s a sense of excitement and anticipation common to every sports team at the beginning of a season.
For East athletic trainer Jennifer Hudson, though, the start of fall practices means making sure all athletes are safe.
“Our goal is to always give the very best care to all our athletes and to keep them safe,” she said. “Our No. 1 goal is prevention. If we can prevent an injury, it’s all the better for everyone.”
And that’s why each sport will have a visit from Hudson this week, educating not only the coaches, but the athletes, on what to look for.
“The best idea is to make sure (athletes, coaches and parents) are informed on heat illness, concussions,” Via Christi Health sports medicine manager Travis Francis said. “If you see a buddy who doesn’t want to say anything (if he’s not feeling well), we want to help the team be accountable — ‘Joe’s not doing well, he’s not breathing well’ or ‘He’s not sweating,’ ‘He got hit and doesn’t know where he’s at.’ ”
Via Christi has athletic trainers at Bishop Carroll, Northwest, Heights, Southeast, West, Maize, Maize South and Independent.
Not surprisingly, the biggest issue early is the heat. It’s been a hot summer, and while temperatures aren’t expected to be as high, it’s still an issue.
“I’m looking for kids who are kind of looking like they’re out of it or start complaining that they’re dizzy,” Hudson said. “The first day of practice is hard work, so I want to keep my eye on everything and monitor how the weather is doing. That will be a big key for me.”
And that’s not just for football. Schools such as West don’t have air-conditioned gyms, so volleyball teams will be practicing in heat, too.
What should help, though, is because of Kansas State High School Activities Association rules allowing more time with coaches through mid-July, athletes are working out in the heat of the summer more with their teammates.
“At Carroll, I know these guys have been running all summer and in the weight room,” Eagles athletic trainer Lori Burton said. “You still worry about the heat, but I know they’ve been out there all summer…. The first day of practice, back in the day, was, ‘I wonder how many kids will throw up’ because I don’t think they conditioned as much.”
Still, there’s always going to be ankle injuries, hamstring injures and soreness because they’re suddenly going twice a day or the practices are simply more intense.
“There’s also lots of freshmen, who you have to watch even more,” Burton said. “It’s great to be in high school, but wow, that’s a lot faster, and those kids you have to watch. It’s ‘I’m in high school now, I didn’t realize they were 30 pounds bigger.’ ”
An issue that has caught national attention in recent years is concussions. Last year, Kansas passed a law forcing any athlete exhibiting signs of a head injury to be removed from a game and not allowed back without doctor approval.
Francis points out, though, there hasn’t been an increase in the number experienced, just the number reported or identified.
“How we evaluate them and the management of them has gotten better,” Francis said. “… We’re more conservative with those injuries than in the past.”
He added that athletic trainers assess and then if needed, send the athlete to a doctor for more testing for a true diagnosis.
“Our part to play is, we need to reduce the number of hits while the brain is injured,” Francis said. “It’s no different when you pull your hamstring — you limit your activity while it heals.”
For East football coach Brian Byers, if Hudson says an athlete can’t play, that athlete won’t. It doesn’t matter what kind of injury.
“I remember the days when we had to do it ourselves,” he said of making playing decisions after an injury. “You don’t really have all that background in it and you’re making decisions that could affect someone’s health.”
City League athletic director J. Means agreed.
“I’m so happy that we are able to have athletic trainers on our sites when practices are there,” he said. “You just never know what might happen. I feel our kids are going to be much safer.”