Athletic Liability Series Pt 3

Athletic Liability Series – Part 3 of a 3 part Newsletter Series

By: William D. Berard III, Esq., and Mary Jo McGrath, Esq.
McGrath Training Systems

“Are you ready?” This simple question of good coaching is also a fundamental of responsible risk management. Coaches have the important duty of ensuring that their athletes are properly conditioned.

As school doors open around the country for the start of a new academic year, we are also launching another season of fall sports practice and competition for student athletes. What makes this time of year so challenging for coaches is that it is also the hottest time of year throughout most of the United States. Coaches are forced to find the delicate balance between properly conditioning athletes for the upcoming season and being mindful of the often severe weather conditions. Unfortunately, this balance is not always met, and we read about athletes suffering from dehydration, heat stroke, and even death.

To avoid this, it is vital that a coach truly knows his or her athletes and understands and appreciates the strengths and limitations of each. A preseason physical should be completed for each athlete, and the coach should review all physical forms prior to the first practice session. The coach must be aware of any pertinent medical conditions and/or physical disabilities that an athlete may have and find out what limitations the condition may cause. This type of inquiry must be done in a very sensitive manner so as avoid violating the student’s HIPAA (medical records) privacy rights. Given HIPAA, be sure to also confer with your district legal counsel as to where records from physicals and emergency medical information should be stored and who has access to these records.

In addition, coaches must accommodate any limitations caused by the weather. For example, if the forecast is humid and temperatures in the 80’s or 90’s, practice should not be held in the middle of the day when it is the hottest. An early morning or evening practice would be more acceptable. Even during these
times, hydration is of the utmost importance.

Providing fluids is not always enough however. Coaches must be vigilant and make sure that athletes are actually consuming the fluids. In addition to regular fluid breaks, athletes should be allowed periodic opportunities to get out of the sun (such as sitting under a shady tree) and to remove any protective gear that may be confining, heavy or heat-absorbing.

There is no substitute for acting reasonably and responsibly when conditioning athletes. Here are some helpful conditioning guidelines:

  • Never allow a student to participate, not even in practice, without a preseason physical exam.
  • Always begin the activity with a warm-up phase.
  • Include an appropriate period of conditioning before the start of the season.
  • Before practice or conditioning sessions, always ask athletes if they have been ill or experiencing any pain or injury. Make it safe for them to communicate their concerns to you – publicly or privately. Do not allow anyone to be ridiculed for voicing a well being concern.
  • Learn the indicators of possible injury, heat exhaustion, asthma, seizures, eating disorders and mental health concerns, and be alert for these signs and symptoms during conditioning, practice and competition.
  • Check the weather daily and have a plan in place for canceling activities and responding to weather-related dangers such as electrical storms and flash floods.
  • Keep written records of conditioning routines, lesson plans, athletes’ attendance and progress.

Have a great Fall season and minimize the risk of harm and liability for all involved.

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