The 2014 World Cup match between the US and Portugal in Manaus, Brazil, produced a first in the tournament’s 84-year history. In the 39th minute, a temporary halt to play was called by the match’s referee, mandating the first official water break in a World Cup match.
At the time, it was an event that sparked debate throughout the entire tournament. Some players and coaches felt the breaks disrupted the natural flow of matches. Italy’s Thiago Motta went so far as to say it was the culprit for his team’s 1-0 upset to Costa Rica.
Four years later, we’ve become accustomed to the mandatory breaks when temperatures spike.
In 2015, hydration breaks were introduced to MLS. The League made mandatory a stoppage of play around the 30th and 75th minute of matches in which the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature index measured 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit and higher – the Wet Blub Globe Temperature (WGBT) takes into account wind, cloud cover, time of day, as well as temperature to compile its index.
So far this season, LAFC have already had one instance of mandatory hydration breaks during a May 5 match at home against FC Dallas.
Now as the Club travels to Dallas with daytime highs expected in triple digits before the reverse fixture, the Black & Gold are once again having to deal with the elements this season. So, I sat down with LAFC Director of Performance Gavin Benjafield to find out how the Club prepares to go 90 minutes in such extreme circumstances.
The Dangers Of Playing In Extreme Temperatures
Maintaining a high level of performance in extreme temperatures isn’t solely about mind over matter these days. There can be real consequences beyond poor performances.
Heat illness has been identified in athletes across the spectrum of sports. Athletes exhibiting over exposure to high temperartures feel dizzy, begin to lose focus, and in some cases have symptoms very similar to head injury cases.
“Literally, the body starts, not shutting down, but there’s a reaction to it going, ‘Ok, I need to slow this down, I need to stop this.’ Because if it goes any further, it can become critical,” Benjafield says. “You’re basically looking at how the athlete is responding, how they are coming in. If they start having shivers but it’s 95 degrees, something is going on. Basically, the body’s ability to thermoregulate, to regulate itself based on the external temperature, it’s not able to support that heat and the stress that you are putting the body in. Those are the signs that we start looking at during the game and halftime.”
Planning Well In Advance
The mantra of “one game at a time” might work well for the players, but the LAFC training staff doesn’t work that way.
Planning for potential stress points begins the second the MLS schedule is released. Trips to Dallas and Houston were pinpointed as potential high temperature matches early on, as were long flights to New York and Montreal.
By identifying those potential obstacles well in advance, Benjafield says the staff can start tackling possible stress-related issues as early as preseason.
“With regards to the temperature, we knew that Dallas and Houston are going to be our two biggest games at temperature stress or environmental stress,” Benjafield says. “Hydration is something that we’ve hammered from the beginning of preseason. We’re able measure our players’ hydration. We do that on a weekly basis. We do that two days out from the game. That allows a 48-hour opportunity to get them into a well-hydrated state.”
Heat As Another Kind Of Stress
Playing in temperatures of 90 degrees and above isn’t ideal for anyone. But as Benjafield puts it, the best way to categorize the extreme heat is as just another in a multitude of possible external stresses that athletes face on any given day.
“Heat is a environmental stress. Can you do much about it? Well, unless you’re going to play super late night or super early in the morning, you got to go play under those circumstances,” Benjafield says. “So you add it as an addition stress. Travel is a stress. Altitude is a stress. Playing back-to-back games, or games in a very tight space, is a stress. Playing with 10 men is a stress. These are all external stresses that the body needs to deal with.”
When looked at in that context, Benjafield and his staff are able to provide a wholistic approach to monitoring a player’s performance in adverse conditions. While a player like Walker Zimmerman, who trained and played in Dallas before being traded to LAFC, likely has a high heat threshold, a player coming from a colder climate might be more adversely affected. But in any given match, Zimmerman might be facing other external factors that could affect his performance. Compartmentalizing each stress factor allows Benjafield and his staff the ability to more accurately monitor players performances and provide solutions.
Combating The Heat Before, During, And After
Benjafield and his staff maintain a vast array of data on players, including previous medical history. Naturally, as previously noted, one of the most important pieces of information they monitor prior to exposure in extreme heat is players’ hydration levels.
“Every team that I’ve worked with you get guys that are well-hydrated, guys that need to be monitored closely, and guys that have terrible hydration, they actually step onto the field in a dehydrated state,” Benjafield says. “But because they’ve never been exposed to any other state, they’re like, ‘Well, this is just normal for me to be tired during training sessions or sweat a lot.’ We’ve been monitoring hydration since the beginning of the season and hammering it, hammering it, and hammering, purely for the fact that we knew this game was coming up.”
Sending guys onto the field already in a well-hydrated state is the best preventative measure when temperatures rise.
The staff also takes precautions to lower a player’s core temperature via things like ice towels, cold showers, and slushies with electrolyte powder during the match and at halftime. The theory behind this is if the body begins to shut down at a certain threshold, expanding the distance between the player’s baseline temperature and that critical redline temperature gives the player more room for maximum exertion during competition.
“You’re wanting to control the gradient of the increase of the body temperature,” Benajfield says. “You can decrease that gradient by having the water breaks, by having the ice towels out there, so that the gradient of having the body temperature isn’t steep. It’s slightly flat. So we’re going to start at the lowest set point. If you can start lower and have a lower gradient, you can potentially push it up for longer.”
Even after the match, the heat battle continues.
Athletes can show signs of heat illness even after exposure. Immediately following a match, the LAFC training staff continues to directly monitor players. Because they’ll be on the road in Dallas, the staff will be able to stay with the players to monitor them at the hotel before returning home the next day. But even after a home match, Benjafield and his staff maintain contact with players and even deploy family members to help monitor players if any symptoms are detected.
“We would know immediately after the game if any player is at that risk,” Benjafield says.
A week of unseasonably mild temperatures in Los Angeles this week during training has LAFC players in a less optimal position than they might normally be in traveling to Dallas in June. But with the attention to detail from Benjafield and his staff, the Black & Gold will be well prepared to handle the heat on and off the pitch.