USA TODAY High School Sports and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association have partnered on a monthly column to address injuries, prevention and related issues to help schools, coaches and student-athletes. Here is the latest column from Scott Sailor, the president of NATA.
Fall semesters are beginning across the country, which means fall sports are already upon us. It’s an exciting time of year for both athletes and parents, and it’s also the perfect time to ensure those sports are being played as safely as possible. Here are some safety tips to consider as high school sports ramp up:
- Prepare properly. All athletes should have a pre-participation exam to determine if their bodies are physically able to play. Medical authorization forms should be completed that include the student-athlete’s medical history, emergency contacts and permission for the school’s medical team to provide emergency care if necessary. Parents, consider your child’s unique circumstances and make sure he or she is physically and mentally prepared to participate. This is especially important if your child was previously injured and is returning to sports this fall. Athletes who are mentally ready to return to play after an injury usually have a smoother transition, which helps avoid repeat injury.
- Ensure a safe playing environment. Wondering if your athlete’s school has all the proper safety measures in place? Find out the answers to these important questions:
- Does the school have an emergency action plan (EAP)? Normally developed by the school’s athletic trainer, this plan provides a formal protocol for emergencies in collaboration with the school’s administration, coaches and local Emergency Medical Service (EMS). There should be a venue-specific EAP for all practice and game facilities.
- Is the equipment in working order? Each sport has specific equipment that must be working properly to ensure safe play, including basketball goals, football helmets, gymnastics apparatus and field turf, to name a few. The school should also have automated external defibrillators (AEDs) onsite that are properly maintained by someone who knows how to use them in case of emergency. AEDs should be checked on a monthly basis because the batteries and pads need constant monitoring.
- Who’s taking care of your athlete? Coaches should be credentialed if that is a requirement by your state, conference or league. They should also have CPR, AED and first aid training and collaborate with the sports medicine team, which includes the physician and athletic trainer, to ensure a plan is in place for emergencies. (NATA recommends that all secondary school athletic programs have at least one full-time athletic trainer.) In addition, it’s important that medical decisions are made by those same medical professionals, rather than coaches. This eliminates any potential conflict of interest.
- How clean are the facilities? Locker rooms, gyms and showers should be cleaned on a regular basis to prevent bacterial, viral and fungal skin infections such as MRSA. Athletes should avoid sharing disposable razors, water bottles, sports gear and towels. Make sure your child’s clothing and equipment are being laundered/cleaned on a daily basis. (Some schools provide laundry services for the athletes, but others require athletes to handle it themselves. I’ve heard horror stories about high school athletes going months without washing their practice clothes!)
- Know the risks. Returning to sports in late summer and early fall is an especially dangerous time for athletes because high temperatures lead to an increased risk of heat illness. (Find tips to beat the heat.) Certain sports have an increased risk of concussion, so those athletes need to be educated on prevention, symptoms and management. Athletes should be encouraged to speak up if they’ve taken a hit to the head and suffer from symptoms such as dizziness, loss of memory, lightheadedness or fatigue. If your child carries the sickle cell trait (all newborns are tested for this condition at birth), you should share that information with the school’s athletic trainer or medical team, since intense exertion poses increased risk for sickle cell trait athletes. Other medical conditions such as asthma and allergies can be exacerbated by intense activity, so keep those risks in mind.
Following these simple sports safety tips helps ensure that young athletes can excel in their sport and enjoy the spirit of competition with the right protocols in place. This checklist should be an integral part of every season or new activity. It will help create a foundation for safe play and a win-win environment for parents, coaches, teammates and the athletes themselves.