Protecting the health and safety of young athletes
Monday, September 11, 2017
Just under 31 million U.S. youth, ages 6-14, take part in sports. Each year, injuries linked to sports and recreation send more than 2.6 million children (0-19 years) to emergency departments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What can coaches, schools and recreation organizations do to reduce these injuries?
We turn to the National Athletic Trainers' Association. NATA recommends "groundbreaking health and safety guidelines to provide a road map for national governing bodies to ensure the best policies and procedures are in place to protect young athletes."
First on the NATA list is establishing emergency action plans. Preparation is paramount, ranging from access to emergency equipment to training for athletes, coaches, leaders and parents.
Preparing for worst outcomes is part of such planning for young athletes.
"Catastrophic injury is an obvious threat to this population," Robert A. Huggins, Ph.D., of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, said in a press release.
NATA also recommends having a comprehensive medical management plan and policy for athletes with a potentially serious head or neck injury, including concussion. To this end, the proper use, fitting and wear of protective equipment is vital.
Regular education of coaches, athletes, parents and other pertinent members on the plan and policy for catastrophic injury prevention and intervention is crucial.
Coaches should be unable to have an athlete with a possible head or neck injury return to play. The appropriate medical personnel, including athletic trainers, must be in charge of managing athletes with injured heads or necks, even if they do not require emergency medical treatment.
"With increased awareness of the potential causes of death and implementation of potential preventive mechanisms," Huggins said, "member organizations can improve the health and safety of our young athletes."
Dr. Bennet Omalu, who actor Will Smith played in the 2015 film "Concussion," is a top authority on traumatic brain injuries. He chronicled his findings in his memoir, "Truth Doesn't Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports."
The Nigerian-American physician, forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, knows of what he speaks. Omalu, the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, Calif., and a clinical professor at University of California, Davis, was the first to publish findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players.
"I didn't want to write this book," Omalu said, "but I realized I needed to write it to keep our kids safe. It may only take one concussion to change the brain permanently. This isn't my opinion. These are the facts."
Cardiovascular health is also crucial for young athletes. NATA recommends cardiovascular screening of youth before they participate. This requires time budgeted for coaches and parents, but is essential for the safety of youth athletes.
Further, NATA calls for the presence of automated external defibrillators at practices and games for young athletes. Again, this additional level of preparation and prevention requires extra time from coaches and parents.
Extreme heat is the new normal of the nation's weather patterns, as triple-digit temperatures slam rural and urban America. Preparing young athletes to play in such hot environments and to avoid heat strokes is vital. Adequate hydration is a simple-yet-effective measure.
NATA recommendations also include the following areas:
- Heat acclimatization program and "how-to" guide in place before training for the sport when applicable (i.e. preseason in hot environments, nonclimate-controlled conditions or new environments in unfamiliar regions)
- Medical management plan for the care of athletes with heat stroke; return-to-play plan for athletes who have experienced exertional heat stroke
- Plan for assessing environmental conditions to prevent heat-related illnesses including heat stroke.
"As an organization, we stress athlete safety first and foremost to ensure a safe and enjoyable sport experience," said Mike Clayton, the manager for the National Coaches Education Program for USA Wrestling. "At tournaments and events, a key focus is on being prepared for life threatening injuries first with paramedics and athletic trainers."
Location may rule in real estate, but preparation and prevention are key to promote safety in youth sports. Millions of young lives depend on it.
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