Put Me In, Coach: Helping Athletes With Asthma Play It Safe

CoachBy Gary Fitzgerald 

The team of 10-year-old boys skated onto the ice rink, hockey sticks in hand. Two minutes later, they returned to the bench for a breather. Several reached for their inhaler, lifted up their mask, and breathed in the medication.

The boys repeated this over and over again during the 60-minute hockey game – a sign that their asthma was not well controlled and they were having trouble catching their breath.

Scenes like this one play out at youth sporting events and gym classes across the country. Many coaches, physical education teachers and even referees do not know how to recognize when athletes need help with their asthma, or when to remove them from practice or games.

Susan Ross, a mom, registered nurse and certified asthma educator from St. Paul, Minn., saw a need to better educate coaches and physical education teachers about asthma and what to do in an emergency situation.

Ross has asthma herself and knows that exercise is a common trigger for many kids.

“Coaches are responsible for making sure a player is safe during practice and games,” Ross said. “Physical education teachers should discuss their curriculum with the school nurse so that helping students with asthma in gym class is a team effort.”

A clinical advisor for the Minnesota Department of Health, Ross created the Coach’s Asthma Clipboard Program in 2006 in partnership with the Utah Department of Health Asthma Program.

The 30-minute online training video, available at www.WinningWithAsthma.org, instructs coaches, referees and gym teachers how to help young athletes manage their asthma while still playing their best. It explains how asthma affects the ability to compete in sports, how to recognize asthma symptoms, and what to do if a child’s asthma is flaring up.

Schools and community sports programs across the country have adopted the Coach’s Asthma Clipboard Program and asthma groups nationwide promote it.

This year, Gayle Higgins, a pediatric nurse practitioner and certified asthma educator at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, is implementing the program; it’s sponsored by the Pennsylvania Asthma Partnership.

“Many coaches and teachers don’t realize the seriousness of asthma, that it is a life-threatening disease,” Higgins says. “This program provides coaches with basic information, including how to use an inhaler, so they feel comfortable coaching boys and girls with asthma.”

What Parents Need to Know

“You have asthma?”

Susan Ross looked to the backseat of her car, her son Alex’s words catching her by surprise. Ross and her husband – a youth soccer coach – were driving Alex and two other boys to a soccer game 75 miles away. Sure enough, one of the boys had an albuterol inhaler pressed to his mouth.

Turns out he had asthma. “His parents never told us,” Ross said. “If he had collapsed on the field due to an asthma attack, we would not have immediately known what was wrong or how to help him.”

Parents of young athletes with asthma are urged to meet with coaches, referees, physical education teachers and the school nurse at the beginning of each school year or sports season and provide an up-to-date written Asthma Action Plan created in collaboration with the child’s health care provider. Make sure your child always brings quick-relief bronchodilator medications to practice, games and gym class (if prescribed).

Stay in touch with the coach or teacher throughout the year so they are aware of any changes in your child’s asthma symptoms or treatment plan. The goal is not only to help kids compete and succeed, but also to develop lifelong healthy habits.

“Kids who have asthma can perform just as well as everyone else at sports – there are marathon runners, Olympic athletes and professional football, hockey and basketball players who have asthma – but they need to make sure their asthma is well controlled, their lungs are clear, they’re taking their medication correctly, and they’re not having any asthma symptoms,” Ross said.

Finally, be supportive and encouraging. Some kids, especially those in middle and high school, tend to hide their asthma because they don’t want to appear different. Let them know that other children have asthma, and that coaches and teachers are there to help.

Reviewed by Brooke Curran