Put safety first when it comes to school sports

While scorching hot days are still here, it is hard to believe that school has already started and practices are underway. This is a good time for parents to make sure their children’s schools have the best sports medicine practices in place. I strongly believe nothing is more important than the safety of our student athletes as they prepare for fall sports and activities.

As athletic trainers, we provide a vital role in keeping young athletes safe, yet only 37 percent of U.S. public high schools have a full-time athletic trainer.

Here are some specific questions to ask of schools that will provide you with a good starting point and roadmap of care:

Who comprises the school’s sports medicine team? Find out who will provide care to your child in case of an injury, and ask to review their credentials. To avoid conflict of interest, it is important that any medical decisions are made by the school’s sports medicine professionals (physicians and athletic trainers), not the coach.

Does the school have an emergency action plan? Every team should have a venue-specific written emergency action plan for managing serious or potentially life-threatening injuries. It should be reviewed by the athletic trainer or local Emergency Medical Service, and individual assignments need to be included. If your school does not have an athletic trainer, other qualified individuals need to be present to render care.

Is the equipment in working order? Make sure all equipment ranging from field goals, basketball flooring, gymnastics apparatus and field turf are in safe and working order. This also includes emergency medical equipment such as spine boards, splint devices and automated external defibrillators (AEDs) – which should be checked once per month; batteries and pads need consistent monitoring and replacing.

How qualified are the coaches? A background check should always be performed on coaches and volunteers. They should be credentialed if that is a requirement in your state or conference. Additionally, they should have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), AED and first aid training and have a plan for dealing with emergencies.

Are locker rooms, gyms and shower surfaces cleaned on a regular basis? With the advent of MRSA and related skin infections reported in recent years, it is critical to keep these surfaces routinely cleaned and checked for germs. Athletes must be discouraged from sharing towels, athletic gear, water bottles, disposable razors and hair clippers. Clothing and equipment should be laundered and/or disinfected on a daily basis.

Does the school have an AED and someone who knows how to use it? Ensure that the sports medicine team and other personnel know where the AED is located and how it is used. It should be readily available within three minutes (preferably one) during both practices and games.

If you are preparing your children for sports participation, consider the following:

Get a pre-participation exam: All athletes should have a pre-participation exam to determine their readiness to play and uncover any condition that may limit participation. A young athlete’s underlying medical condition can be exacerbated with vigorous, sustained physical activity.

Physical and mental preparation is paramount: Parents, with input from coaches and athletic trainers, should determine whether their children are physically and psychologically ready for the sport/activity level they are playing. Young athletes should not be pushed into something they not want to do. It is critical for them to have the right mindset and confidence to return to play if injury has occurred; and if an athlete does shows signs of mental distress, the athletic trainer, coach and school mental health professional should work together to provide that athlete the best care.

Share an athlete’s medical history: Parents should complete an emergency medical authorization form that should ask for parent contact information, the athlete’s medical history and permission for emergency medical care for that athlete. Check with your school to obtain the forms.

Get educated on reducing risk of injury: The National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) has launched a public service campaign including a website, www.AtYourOwnRisk.org, to provide comprehensive information on reducing risk of injury in work, life and sport. The site includes interactive state-by-state maps, risk assessment quizzes, sports health specific educational material and resources for parents, coaches and others.

Finally, here are some individual athlete concerns and considerations for a school’s sports medicine team:

Beat the heat: Acclimatize athletes to warm weather activities over a 7 to 14-day period. This includes heat acclimatization, hydration and modifying exercise based on environmental conditions, among other criteria. I recommend that for the first two days in sports requiring protective equipment, only helmets should be permitted (this includes goalies); during days three to five only helmets and shoulder pads should be worn; beginning on day six, all equipment can be worn.

Use your head: Be certain the medical team is well educated on concussion prevention and management and that the school provides education to the athletes as well. The student should be encouraged to speak up if he or she is hit in the head and suffering from any related symptoms such as dizziness, headache, loss of memory, light headiness, fatigue or imbalance.

Be smart about sickle cell trait: All newborns are tested at birth for this inherited condition, and those results should be shared during a pre-participation exam. Red blood cells can sickle during intense exertion, blocking blood vessels and posing a grave risk for athletes with the sickle cell trait: screening and simple precautions may prevent death and help the athlete with sickle cell trait thrive in his or her chosen sport.

Build in recovery time: Allow time for the body to rest and rejuvenate in between seasons. If the athlete has just finished the basketball season and has his or her sights set on baseball, make sure there is rest time built it to recover from the rigors of grueling months on the court and acclimatize to the next sport to avoid injury and help ensure good health for the season ahead.

Pay attention to sport specific injury prevention: Any repetitive motion can lead to overuse injury as these motions can put added stress on the joints, muscles or ligaments with sudden movement or rigorous activity increasing the chance of injury. Following a protocol of flexibility and strength training is integral to a young athlete’s participation.

By following these tips, you can help reduce the risk of sports injuries and know that if an injury does occur there is a plan in place, and that the right health care professionals can help prevent, manage and treat the injury safely and effectively. Here is to a safe and exciting fall sports season.

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