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Marching Bands: Keeping Them Healthy and Safe

By Brian Robinson on August 19, 2016 hst

With the beginning of the school year and most fall athletic programs starting in July or August, it is important to remember that high school marching bands will be practicing in the same environments as football, soccer, field hockey and many other interscholastic activities. These marching band members are just as susceptible to the effects of heat illness as those participating in interscholastic athletics.

Marching bands typically spend hours in hot and humid conditions, rehearsing for pre-game, half-time performances and contests. Additionally, quick changes in weather conditions present threatening situations that affect all fall athletes. This may require band members to seek immediate shelter. School administrators and band directors must plan ahead, in collaboration with their athletic trainer or athletic department, in order to provide the safest environment and strategies for their students.

It is imperative that administrators and band directors develop and practice an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) specifically designed to address the marching band including the spaces in which they practice and rehearse. The EAP should address issues related to heat illness, sudden cardiac arrest, asthma, as well as lightning and thunder.

The personnel and equipment needed to deal with these emergency situations should be designated within the EAP. The location of the nearest AED, as well as who will retrieve it and who will be performing CPR should be clearly noted within the EAP. Equally important is who is to be designated to initiate the call to activate Emergency Medical Services (EMS). All faculty and staff associated with the marching band should be trained and certified in CPR and AED use. Band directors should be aware of any pre-existing health conditions that may affect individual band members.

Dealing with the heat of July, August and September is a major concern for band members. Band directors should provide for a slow and progressive period of acclimatization prior to the marching season. Once band camp begins, members should acclimatize by working outside for short then progressively longer periods of time during the first couple of weeks.

Students should be encouraged to wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. An area of shade should be available for rest periods with accessibility to water. Easy access to air conditioning as well as a cold immersion tank should be available in the event of a heat emergency. Band members should be taught the signs and symptoms of heat illness. They should be encouraged if not required to “speak up” when starting to feel the effects of exposure to the sun and heat. Band staff as well as parent volunteers should be educated as to the signs and symptoms of heat illness and the appropriate response to these situations. 

Hydration is a key component even with marching bands. Hydration begins before band members arrive for practice and continues during and after, using thirst as their guide. Unlimited supplies of water and sports drinks should be available during practices, dedicated for use by band members as opposed to relying on the ability to share with athletic teams.

It is common for high school students to skip breakfast prior to an early morning practice. Whether they are band members or athletes, they should be encouraged not to skip meals. Meals consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and proteins should be consumed in order to fuel these musical athletes. If budgets allow, having fruits, vegetables, granola and protein bars available during rehearsal and practice breaks provide nutritious snacks for the students. Band members should be discouraged from using energy drinks, most of which contain high quantities of caffeine.

It is important that band directors and their staff are aware of thunder and lightning guidelines in the event of threatening weather. Many schools have a lightning detection system. Without hesitation, band members should seek shelter in appropriate safe areas when thunder or lightning is detected in the area. If the weather appears threatening, a staff member should be assigned to monitor the approaching conditions. If thunder is heard or lightning is observed, shelter should be sought immediately. The band director and supervisors should be well acquainted with the nearest areas of safe shelter for their students.

More information can be found on “Lightning and Thunder Safety” in the NFHS Sports Medicine Handbook which is sent to high schools throughout the country.

Since band members spend many hours in the sun, they should be encouraged to wear sunscreen, sunglasses and wide-brim hats in order to protect themselves from long periods of exposure to the sun. Band directors should inspect their practice areas inside and outside. Holes, debris or uneven ground on practice fields should be brought to the attention of the administration in order to reduce the risk of accidents, which may include sprains, strains and fractures. A first-aid kit should accompany the band to all practices, performances and contests. The school’s athletic trainer can be an excellent resource not only for equipping the first-aid kit, but recommendations on hydration, nutrition, conditioning and acclimatization as well.

Marching bands are an important component of the school community. As with interscholastic athletics, marching bands are seen as an extension of the classroom. Band members deserve the same concerns for their safety and well-being as all those participating in interscholastic athletic activities. The NFHS and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association have many helpful publications and guidelines that can assist administrators and band directors in their planning for the upcoming school year.