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Heart of an issue

Study helping coaches learn not to dismiss nerves

Enterprise High School football coach Randy Hunter, on the shoulders of his players, carries the 1A state championship trophy. Hunter has learned that stepping back and relaxing is a crucial part of the job.
Enterprise High School football coach Randy Hunter, on the shoulders of his players, carries the 1A state championship trophy. Hunter has learned that stepping back and relaxing is a crucial part of the job.
Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News

CEDAR CITY — There was a time during his tenure as head football coach at Enterprise High School when Randy Hunter felt uneasy, and he felt he needed to step back and relax for a minute or two.

Thoughts of a big game with powerhouses Rich High or Monticello High always played on him, but he always dismissed it as nerves.

It wasn't until he was at Canyon View High School several years later that he really understood what was happening. It wasn't just nerves. It was his heart.

"After we did that study I can understand what was going on," Hunter said.

The study: a test of his heart rate during games conducted by Dr. Matt Rhea, an assistant professor of exercise science at Southern Utah University.

During a Region 9 game against Snow Canyon High School in 2004, Hunter wore a heart monitor and an accompanying wrist watch, and Rhea sat in the stands and correlated times. At the end of the game, Rhea and Hunter analyzed Hunter's heart patterns and specified incidents during the game when his heart rate jumped dramatically.

Hunter found his heart rate to was at 130 before the game even started, and during the game it shot to as high as 190 beats per minute. For the entire game his heart rate was an average of 102 beats per minute.

"It was surprising to say the least with what is really going on with heart rate," Hunter said. "I guess it's alarming, not surprising."

Three times during the game — twice on false starts and one other time while having a discussion with a player — his heart rate hit 190. At halftime, his heart rate was between 170 and 190.

"It's in the back of my mind that I need to be able to relax more," said Hunter, who is willing to continue to be tested.

It was even more of an alarm when he figured out his heart rate was constantly high during the week in preparation for games.

He could no longer dismiss it as nerves. He worked and worried long hours each week while practicing, watching film and performing other duties in preparation for the next game. He doesn't sleep well two or three times each week. He also occasionally excercises.

"When I'm at home thinking over things, I can feel myself getting nerves and getting worked up," said Hunter, who is the son of longtime Utah high school coach Bill Hunter and brother of former Granite High football coach B.J. Hunter.

Hunter, 30, who along with his wife, Malesha, have three children, now understands it's an issue he needs to address, not only for the here-and-now, but for the long term.

"I don't think I've been able to curb my nerves before a game and during the week," he said. "I think during the week I realized there are some issues. It's only a sustained thing for a part of the year, but it can take a toll over time."

In addition to Hunter, Rhea conducted studies on nine high school basketball coaches (eight men, one woman), and four junior college and Division I basketball coaches (all men) and six other high school varsity football coaches (all men).

The average heart rate was calculated from one hour before the game began to the end of the game. In addition, heart rate variability was examined by counting the number of times the coaches' heart rate increased more than 30 beats per minutes in less than one minute.

The frequency of increased heart rate of more than 30 beats per minute in less than a minute is suspected to be a marker for risk of heart attack.

Also, the average time needed to drop 30 beats per minute was examined.

The study also took into consideration individual characteristics such as age, gender and years of coaching experience in relation to the heart-rate data.

The findings were shocking.

The average heart rate for the 20 coaches was 130 beats per minutes or approximately 65 percent of the coach's age-predicted maximal heart rate. Twelve coaches were measured with periodic heart rates exceeding 90 percent of their predicted maximal heart rate.

The average number of variations in heart rate of more than 30 beats per minute was 16 for one entire game, and on average, it took coaches nearly five minutes to return their heart rate to baseline.

"I have seen heart-rate patterns among coaches that look the same as heart-rate patterns that I saw on firefighters during intense labor and it scares me to death," Rhea said. "The most drastic and immediate risk is heart attack. It comes to a point where blood pressure is so high that the heart is trying to beat so many times it just can't keep up with the demand."

Although there is the immediate risk of heart attack, Rhea is more concerned, however, with the long term for all coaches and especially young coaches like Hunter, who have many more years in coaching.

"Right now, I'm not too worried about him having a heart attack there on the sidelines," Rhea said. "If he keeps doing it that way where he's stressed all week and during a game he spikes up and down, over a 20-year career, he will probably end up with some sort of heart condition because of it."

Rhea cannot find any long-term studies that have been conducted on coaches, so that is what he is determined to do. Along with Dr. Steve Lunt, former chairman of the physical education department and professor emeritus of the university, Rhea hopes to land funding to broaden his study and provide coaches with a better plan to combat stress.

"Just from the people I've talked to and the incidents I have seen, I am very concerned about this issue," he said. "I don't have to do another game to tell coaches they are at health risks because of stress. You see it over and over."

What he does need it cold, hard facts.

Rhea and Lunt started a program called "Coach Care" designed to monitor and interpret heart-rate patterns for coaches and help them design programs to manage stress.

"What we want to do is give the coaches a way to monitor where they are at and also get some feedback," Rhea said. "I can almost guarantee, like we do with athletes who we can train to relax and calm down, we can train coaches to do the same thing."

Help manage stress

1. Enjoy some sort of physical activity every day — 30 to 60 minutes.

2. Acknowledge you're in a stressful occupation. Get a hobby to help you get away from the job. You have to have a release and force yourself to take that release.

3. Get sufficient sleep and eat properly. Avoid substance abuse (drugs and alcohol).

For more information

For more information concerning this subject or for answers to questions, please contact Dr. Matt Rhea at Southern Utah University at 435-586-7829 or by e-mail at