Heatstroke Deaths of Football Players

By Kim Smiley

A study released in 2010 shed some light on what seems like a high number of football players dying of heat-related deaths.  The study determined that the number of heat-related deaths have actually increased in recent years from less than two per year in the early 90s to nearly 3 currently.  The study outlined some of the causes for the increase.  We can look at these causes in a thorough root cause analysis built as a Cause Map.

We begin with the outline, which captures the impact to the goals as well as the general information about the issue we are investigating.  In this case, we are looking at deaths of football players in the U.S.  The study determined that most deaths occur during football practice in August, in the morning, to linemen.  The impact to the goal of concern is risk of player death.

Beginning with the impacted goal, we can ask why questions to analyze the issue.  The player deaths occur from heatstroke that is not treated immediately, whether from players and/or coaches not recognizing the signs of heatstroke, or treatment being delayed while waiting for an ambulance or other medical professional.  Heatstroke occurs when a person’s heat generation is greater than their cooling ability.  This means there are two parts to the analysis: the heat generation, and the cooling ability.  In this case, increased heat generation occurs from high ambient heat and high levels of body heat being produced, caused by practicing outside in hot weather.

Insufficient cooling ability can occur when a player’s sweating isn’t doing enough to cool him – such as when a player isn’t producing sweat due to dehydration or when the sweat isn’t evaporating, such as in high humidity.  Additionally, players who are large (have a high BMI) tend to be more susceptible to heatstroke as their bodies tend to store more heat.  This is presumably why most deaths occur in linemen, who tend to be larger (79% of the players who died had a BMI above 30.)  Most deaths occur in August, which, in addition to being hot, tends to be the start of the season, meaning players are not accustomed to practicing in the heat.

What can players, coaches, school districts, and parents do to limit the risk of death from heatstroke?  First, ensure that everyone involved in a sporting program recognizes the signs of heat-related illness.  There is a CDC toolkit that provides important information.  Next, make sure that a player who has signs of heat-related illness is treated immediately – while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, take the player out of the sun and spray him with water.  To try and avoid heat-related illnesses, ease into practices at the beginning of the season, limit practice time in extremely high heat and/or humidity, and provide plenty of hydration.

To view the outline, Cause Map, and solutions, please click on “Download PDF” above.