It’s getting hot in here, but not hot enough for the heat policy

On February 11, Brisbane was hosting both AFLW and W-League games. The Lions and Western Bulldogs match began at 3.35pm local time.

Brisbane Roar vs Melbourne City would take place less than 20 kilometres away at Perry Park and was scheduled to start at 3pm.

The round two match between Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs was played in sweltering conditions with little to no shade in sight. Image: Jason O’Brien/AFL Media

Football Federation Australia (FFA) pushed back the kickoff time by an hour two days before the game after looking at the forecast, in accordance with their heat policy.

Along with the delayed kick off, there were 90-second drinks break in the middle of each of the halves. With the temperature in the mid-30s and the humidity at 60%, this was expected.

Back at South Pine Sports Complex, the following was said on the Fox Footy broadcast towards the end of the first quarter:

“We understand the AFL were considering implementing the heat policy, but given there’s no actual designated temperature to instigate it, they’ve decided against it.”

It comment required a double-take. The AFL had decided against implementing the heat policy. Earlier in the broadcast it was mentioned that it was 35 degrees in the shade, and South Pine offers hardly any reprieve from the sun.

To recap, two sports of comparable length and intensity were being played less than 20 kilometres away from each other.

One deemed the conditions extremely hot and activated a policy to address that fact, the other did not.

Many were confused by this and that confusion hit a whole new level in round four.

The Lions were back at the same venue hosting Fremantle, this time with the heat policy in play. The match was played in a downpour.

It made no sense.

So what exactly is the AFL’s heat policy?

The Extreme Weather Policy – from June 2013 found in the policies section of the AFL website – provides guidelines to prevent heat stress and heat induced injuries  which are important facets of heat policy.

It goes on to say:

When you google AFLW-specific heat policies, a few articles come about talking about how the AFL is considering implementing the heat policy for a match. The key word being ‘considering’.

While the AFLW has heat policy considerations built into it – the shortened quarters, the bench size and the unlimited rotations – there is still a lack of clarity about the heat policy as a whole.

As mentioned above, there are no set temperatures or plans of action for specific conditions, and this is what causes confusion and creates the feeling of a lack of consistency.

Things get really confusing and mildly infuriating when you look at AFL Victoria’s heat policy.

The state governing body not only has similar guidelines to the Extreme Weather Policy and sections on junior and local league footy played in the state, but the following:

Here are clear parameters with courses of action for a variety of circumstances. How is the state heat policy more detailed than the national one?


Summer sport

Any sport played in the Australian summer, even the traditional ones like cricket, encounter unique circumstances. Heat-induced illnesses and injuries are incredibly serious and must be in the forefront of the minds of decision makers.

Sports Medicine Australia discusses a variety of factors when it comes to sport and hot weather. There’s the importance of acclimatisation in minimising any potential harm from playing in the heat to athlete fitness levels.

It’s important to think about the fact that most of the players in AFLW aren’t full-time professional athletes. While their levels of fitness would be much higher than the average person, their part-time work load must be taken into account.

Two other key considerations for AFLW especially are time of day and sex. The SMA suggestion is to “Avoid the hottest part of the day (usually 11 am-3 pm). Scheduling events outside this time should be a consideration throughout any summer competition, training or event, regardless of the temperature.”

As for sex, SMA notes that “Female participants may suffer more during exercise in the heat because of their greater percentage of body fat.”


Parameters matter

SMA also provides recommendations about what course of action should be taken depending on the ambient temperature, relative humidity and Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) — a heat stress index that takes into account a number of factors such as ambient temperature, humidity, wind, cloud cover, shade and time of day.

These offer a wonderful guide which takes into account multiple factors and gives clear advice.

For a working example of a sport’s heat policy based on the SMA guidelines, we can look to the other sport that was played on February 11: soccer.

Football Federation Australia looks after three summer leagues including the women’s W-League, and has a clear and easy to understand heat policy.

Its policy uses both the ambient temperature and the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature to determine when the heat policy needs to be implemented and what actions should be taken. The policy says:

  • A match may be delayed or postponed when the WBGT reaches 28 degree Celsius
  • Mandated 90 second drinks breaks (one in each half of a match are implemented when the WGBT is between 26 and 27.9 degrees Celsius or the ambient temperatures is 31 degree Celsius or higher.

Importantly, decisions to implement a drinks break, or delay or postpone a match are medical decisions based on advice from the team doctor(s) at the venue.

FFA’s policy is by no means perfect. It’s by its own admission quite conservative. That being said, matches have gone ahead where postponement or rescheduling seemed like the obvious course of action, not just for player safety but for the benefit of the spectacle.

But the policy is clearly defined and easy to follow.

The AFL heat policy is filled with grey areas that are open to interpretation. This leads to confusion, frustration and a lack of consistency.

It is this which leads to situations where people can’t understand why the heat policy wasn’t activated for one game  –  which appeared to have all the necessary ingredients for activation – but was for another.

And above all else, negligence to enforce the heat policy when it is required is a serious health risk.

The likelihood of AFLW staying a summer league and extending into December and January – thanks to the addition of six new teams in two years and the consequent expansion of the home and away season as well as finals  –  is high.

Therefore, the heat policy needs to be more clear cut for everyone’s sake.

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