It’s not easy for the staff of SWAT All Stars in Fairfield, California, to train an athlete who has double medical trouble—varicose veins and asthma. The varicose veins can be particularly worrisome when even minor injuries happen on the floor, as they make it difficult for the athlete’s body to produce a scab after bleeding. “In cheer, athletes are always [prone] to being cut, but for her, a simple cut could become an emergency,” says Andres Cantero, the gym’s administrative director.
To ward off issues, the young cheerleader wears compression socks to ease the pain from varicose veins and minimize skin exposure. Coaches also keep asthma pumps handy in case she has an attack, and her mother has to be always around to help in case of emergency. However, the concerns do add an extra layer of work and worry for gym employees. “It is not easy, and there is no manual on how to best do this,” says Cantero.
At Renegade Athletics in Calhoun, Georgia, owner Leslie Pledger has also come across her share of athletes with medical issues—including some that were life-or-death. “One athlete had sustained a brain injury when she was younger and it was very dangerous for her to be inverted, so she couldn’t do any cartwheels or handstands,” shares Pledger, who was able to gain clearance from a doctor for the athlete to join the gym’s special needs squad.
In the gym environment, cheer professionals are sure to encounter kids with a gamut of medical conditions, ranging from asthma to heart disease. Here are a few tips to help you rise to the challenge of coaching and helping these athletes stay healthy:
Make the right call. Most gyms have a release form that parents fill out and sign when an athlete registers at the gym. At Renegade Athletics, Pledger is always diligent about carefully reviewing the medical information area of any release form submitted. “When I see something on the medical history that I don’t know about, I look it up and try to determine if I need a release from a doctor to allow the child to participate,” she says. Pledger adds that irrespective of what the doctor decides, coaches have to take the final call. “Some times the doctor doesn’t understand how strenuous competitive cheerleading is and may clear a child anyway,” she points out.
However, this doesn’t mean that athletes don’t get to participate at all—Pledger simply finds the right fit for each athlete’s individual needs. For instance, an athlete who had injured her shoulder at another gym was placed on Renegade’s semi-competitive team since lifting was prohibited, while another who had a heart condition joined Renegade’s low-impact community performance program.
Take it on a case-by-case basis. Even though there is no one-size-fits-all solution for all medical problems, there are some basic questions that need to be asked every time a child with a medical condition walks into the gym. From there, once any issues are brought to light, cheer professionals can dig deeper and work with parents to create a safe environment. “A plan of action should be made with all parties: the coach, the parents and the athlete,” says Jim Lord, executive director at American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors.
For example, if an athlete has asthma, coaches will need to ask the following questions: Is the asthma brought on by physical exertion or is it stress-related? What steps can be taken by the parent, athlete and coach to minimize having an episode? At that point, provisions can be made to properly accommodate the athlete. “Coaches will need to determine if the athlete needs an inhaler accessible at all times and, if so, where it will be located,” adds Lord.
Have a master plan. Although athletes with pre-existing medical conditions are arguably more susceptible to emergency situations, even healthy individuals can succumb to injuries. As such, it’s vital for gyms to be prepared for any situation that might arise—and that means forming an all-encompassing emergency plan. At Renegade Athletics, the emergency action plan addresses injuries, hazardous materials and weather emergencies. “Coaches and staff should be trained on how to respond to each of these [situations], and the plan should be posted in the gym for parents and athletes to see as well,” says Pledger.
Equip your coaches to handle situations properly. Additionally, most gym owners advocate that at least one employee on-site should be trained in proper cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillator (AED) techniques. At SWAT All Stars, all coaches are required to be CPR/AED certified, and much of the early staff training revolves around emergencies and how to handle them.
“We speak on medical emergencies at our first couple staff meetings, and we usually establish and agree upon codes and standards to ensure the safety and health of all athletes,” says Cantero. “Like a fire drill or earthquake drill, coaches need to have a plan in place and everyone on staff needs to know how to react to ensure the best support and services are provided during times of medical emergency.”
Consider requiring physicals to participate. In high school sports, most schools require a physical, but not all gyms have a provision for it. AACCA’s Lord, however, advocates having physicals for all-star gyms. “Gyms should strongly consider requiring PPEs (Pre-Participation Physical Evaluations) in order to minimize the chance of injury due to foreseeable circumstances. They also provide a baseline set of data that can be referenced in the future,” says Lord.
Reduce your liability. Medical issues raise the subject of liability. At SWAT All Stars, parents must sign a form in which they agree not to hold the gym liable. Cantero also reduces his liability by reducing the time of responsibility they have over their athletes, and he is clear about their capability to handle serious emergencies. “We always let parents know we are not medical professionals, and in cases of emergency, we can only do what is in our knowledge and training capacity,” says Cantero, who immediately refers all emergencies to medical professionals.
In the same vein, Cantero is careful to maintain open communication between parents and coaches. That way, no confusion arises around the way medical issues will be handled. Says Cantero, “Open communication makes the gym aware and allows for coaches and parents to pre-plan and agree how to handle athletes’ medical conditions.”