Stupidity and adherence to antiquated training methods contributed to the heat-related death of a Kentucky high school football player in August of 2008.

In August of 2008 sophomore football player Max Gilpin collapsed after running one of 12 “gassers” – an outdated, inefficient and ineffective method of conditioning – and died from heat-related ailments 3 days later. 

Last week a Kentucky grand jury indicted Pleasure Ridge Park coach David Jason Stinson on a charge of reckless homicide.  There have been heat-related deaths in football before, but I’m not sure if a coach has ever been charged with homicide as a result of one of these tragedies.

“Gassers” don’t improve sport-specific fitness, but despite this physiological reality football coaches still use this archaic conditioning drill. I have been a high school football and strength and conditioning coach for 10 years and am familiar with the proper way to condition high school athletes. Every July and August, I conduct a speed and conditioning clinic for high school and youth athletes and have never cancelled the clinic because of extreme weather.  I have also never had a heat-related issue at any of my clinics or football practices. 

Additionally, I have helped other athletic programs design and update their outdoor conditioning programs. Hundreds and hundreds – probably thousands – of kids and practices and not one problem.

If someone coaches long enough the likelihood of a heat-related problem increases. The reality is that there are still things that you can’t control when it comes to high school athletes – level of hydration, amount of rest, detrimental behaviors – as a coach can only do so much with kids given the few hours a day they have contact.

Nevertheless, coaches need to make sure that they do everything in their power to create the safest possible environment for their kids.

“Gassers” are typically run from sideline-to-sideline (about 50-yards) and back for a total of approximately 200-yards per gasser.  Except for track athletes who compete in 200- and 400-meter races, there isn’t a team sport athlete who needs to – or can – sprint for 200-yards. Gassers don’t improve a football player’s level of conditioning. 

For starters, this kind of conditioning drill doesn’t address the energy system needs of a football player – or any team sport player for that matter.  Football players never run 200-yards and certainly don’t run 200-yards 12 times over any period of time.  To have athletes complete this kind of conditioning at the end of a three-hour practice is irresponsible, as the sport-specific conditioning effect is basically nil. After a three-hour practice in 90+ degree heat a football player’s fuel tank is empty.

Football plays typically last between 4-8 seconds with about a 35-55 second rest in between plays. All conditioning drills need to reflect this work-to-rest-ratio and while making the players move as fast as possible for the duration of the drill.  Without the proper rest in between bouts of work, the conditioning drill becomes ineffective from a sport-specific standpoint.

From a practical application standpoint, if you’ve ever watched a group of high school football players run gassers, they start out sprinting for about 20-30 yards and run slower and slower over the duration of the drill.  The change of direction at each sideline gets sloppy and the player slows down to a jog as the 200-yard course is completed.  All of this serves to make football players slower and does not prepare them for the rigors of a football game.  Coaches who employ this method of conditioning are making things tougher for their kids during a game.

However, many coaches run gassers – that doesn’t make them good – but they also don’t have kids dropping dead from them, either. Gassers in themselves aren’t killers.

The problems Coach Stinson is going to have may come from the witness accounts of how he and his coaching staff behaved during the drills.  On a 94-degree day one witness said, “Those coaches thought that they were training young teenagers for the Navy SEALS team instead of a football team. I never once in the time I was there saw anyone offered a water break. I did, however, hear the coach say numerous times that all he needed was one person to say that they quit the team and all of the suffering and running and heat would be over.”

According to news accounts, one player did quit as a result of having to run the gassers.  In court papers a player stated that Coach Stinson said that the drill would be run until someone quit.   Before Gilpin lost consciousness another Pleasure Ridge Park player had collapsed.

In this day and age coaches need to be sensitive to the issues of heat and conditioning.  High school football games are played in extreme conditions in just about every state, especially during the early stages of the season, and the players need to acclimatized to, and condition in, the heat and humidity.  There is certainly a proper way to condition, and conditioning in these extreme conditions is necessary.

But when coaches apply the old-school, meat-headed approach to conditioning and an indifference to the conditions – even if it’s feigned to portray a tough-guy attitude – they are asking for trouble.  Running 12 gassers is as waste of time and effort, running them in extreme conditions is not the smartest thing to do.  Continuing to run the drills after a kid passes out compounds this mistake, and telling kids they are going to run until someone quits is beyond foolish.

There is no doubt Coach Stinson didn’t set out to hurt his any of his kids, as even the toughest of coaches is looking to get their kids to improve.  However, there is no need to take this hardcore approach to training and coaching kids. This tragedy should alert coaches to the very real problems associated with employing outmoded training techniques and attitudes.


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