Playing Hard with Asthma: A Look at Kids’ Sport for Coaches
As a coach, especially of kids, you know that while sports development is important, keeping your athletes safe and healthy is your first priority. If you haven’t already, if you plan to spend a few years coaching, you’re likely to encounter an athlete or two that has asthma—a common and chronic lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe in response to different triggers, such as smoke, pollen, air pollution, fragrances, dust, chemicals like chlorine, and exercise… to name a few.
Kids with asthma are able to participate in sports, so long as their asthma is under control. I probably don’t have to tell you about all the other great reasons why kids should be involved in sports, beyond physical fitness—making new friends, problem solving, teamwork and emotional development… to name just a few! For kids, it’s especially important to focus on individual improvement and skill building, and ensuring kids find the “right” sport program for them so that they stay involved.
Part of being a great coach is developing a relationship of trust with your athletes—and, with kids, their parents! Kids and parents trust you to ensure safety is top priority, and that you know what to do in the event of a child having asthma symptoms. Asthma is a very variable disease—ranging from mild to severe—and kids should always feel safe when participating in sport. They—and their parents—trust you to be in control. This means being able to respond to asthma flare-ups, also known as “attacks” or ‘exacerbations” effectively. As a coach, you need to know each of your young athletes with asthma (or any other health condition) pretty well—what do their asthma symptoms look like, how how well can they articulate their needs, when do you need to intervene, and what to do—kids should be able to trust that you know how to respond if they need help, so kids can focus on the game and parents feel assured kids are in responsible care. And, since you’re reading this, I know you’re ready to ensure that your sport program is a great choice for kids with asthma! :)
Asthma Friendly Sport Tips for Coaches
- Receive an asthma care plan, also known as an asthma action plan, for each young athlete with asthma.
- Asthma symptoms include coughing, wheezing (a whistling noise when a child breathes), chest tightness (which isn’t visible!) and shortness of breath (a child may need to breathe more often between words when speaking, or may look like they are having trouble “catching their breath”. Not all kids have the same asthma symptoms, and not all kids have all of the above symptoms—coughing is the most common, and may be the only symptom.
- Know what severe asthma symptoms look like, and how to respond—parents should provide this on an asthma action plan. Some symptoms include inability to speak, face or fingers turning bluish (decreased oxygen in the body), hunching over to breathe (hands on knees, and using “accessory muscles” around the ribs to assist with difficult breathing). Often, an inhaler is given at a higher dose than usual, while waiting for an ambulance to come. Even kids with mild asthma can experience severe symptoms.
- Understand how medication is used, and when. Some athletes may use medication before they play to prevent asthma symptoms from happening—if asthma symptoms do occur, it is okay to use the medicine again even if they have pre-medicated!
- Let parents know if kids seem to be using their asthma medicine too often, or more often than usual.
- Try to keep meds—all medications—out of the sun! In an Asthma Society of Canada webinar, my former professor and director of the National Coaching Institute of Canada, Dr. David Telles-Langdon (who also is the parent of a child with asthma) notes keeping kids’ inhalers in a beer cooler (sans the beer, I presume!) to ensure it stays cool and shaded on hot days at the soccer field!
- Ask questions! ANY parent will be more than happy to answer your questions about their child’s asthma. If you need more help, or want to learn more, seek out a Public or Community Health Nurse or Asthma Educator in your area to learn more about how to deal with asthma as a coach.
- Ensure kids bring inhalers to practice or competitions. If they don’t have medicine available, they should NOT be allowed to play and their parents should be notified of this before the season begins.
- If you’re questioning if a kid is struggling with their breathing, it is okay to pull them out and make them rest! If their symptoms resolve within a few minutes (either in response to medication, or spontaneously… kids do just get tired, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution and have them take their inhaler), let them return to the game. If you need to pull them out a second time, they should not return to play.
Kids with asthma who regularly have difficulty with physical activity may need to alter their participation, and parents should be encouraged to seek assistance from a doctor. Be mindful of things like the weather and practice environment, and how these triggers may affect a child’s asthma. If a sport program is not a good choice for a child—with or without asthma—don’t take it personally! It’s always most important for kids to have choice in what they participate in, so that they develop that same lifelong love of sport and activity that their coaches should share! By encouraging a child who isn’t finding your program a good fit to try something new, you may lose an athlete, but you’ll teach them an extremely important lesson: that their asthma does not have to hold them back, that they have a choice in what they do, and that—like they would in your sport program!—if the first try doesn’t work, they should approach the next try a bit differently!
And, a note from myself to you—a coach (with asthma!) to another coach—thanks for what you do to empower kids… The fact that you are reading this is evidence you’re working to keep getting better by understanding the needs of your young athletes—props!
How does your asthma change with the seasons?