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Protecting Our Young Athletes: Heart Safe Sports Implementation 

As a federal law enforcement officer deployed overseas, Bryan Inagaki had training in trauma and emergency response. However, he was not prepared when a friend called him and said, “I think I just saw a kid on the lacrosse field today.” A lacrosse player had collapsed at another practice nearby. Thankfully, a lacrosse parent and coach responded immediately and began administering CPR and an AED was used. Thanks to the quick recognition and response the player survived what could have been a fatal event.

As an Avon Grove Lacrosse (AGL) coach and father of two, Bryan’s heart first went out to player and his family, and then his mind went to the logical steps his lacrosse program and the 10 teams could take to ensure that his players, coaches, and families were safe. “Those are our kids out there on the field… I never want to have to make a phone call like that to a parent and deliver that news,” Bryan said. Although he knows that a sudden cardiac arrest can’t always be prevented, he vowed to make his teams as prepared as possible to save a life with the best-case outcomes.

Bryan found resources through Youth Heart Watch at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, an affiliate of Project ADAM®. Working through the program together, AGL became Youth Heart Watch’s first Heart Safe Sports Program.

Avon Grove Lacrosse started their “Start the Heart” response program in 2020, before Damar Hamlin was even drafted by the NFL and before Bronny James had graduated high school. In 2023, we all watched as athletic trainers responded to Hamlin’s cardiac arrest and administer care within 10 seconds of his collapse to save his life and help him make it back on to next season’s roster. We all heard the news of James’ arrest during summer basketball training and his recovery in the hospital with hope that he’ll play with his father in the NBA soon. But what about our young athletes who don’t have the celebrity status or the professional training resources that Hamlin and James had? How can we equip our kids’ teams to ensure that they receive the same response and care on our local playing fields and courts?

Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes, accounting for 75% of these deaths. This fact alone makes it imperative that youth sports are as prepared as the collegiate and professional levels that only a small percentage of these athletes will reach. Bryan doesn’t think it’s practical to expect youth coaches to have medical backgrounds and have athletic trainers on site for all practices and games, but he believes youth sports can have measures in place that can make an impact and be the difference between life and death on the field for our young athletes. Coaches and parents can easily receive CPR and AED training and have enough life-saving equipment on the sidelines to be lay first responders until further help arrives.

Like many other sports programs, AGL found that their biggest challenges in cardiac arrest preparedness were finding the time to coordinate coaches’ schedules for training and drills and finding resources to lead these trainings. Bryan found success by being persistent and showing the lacrosse organization and parents just how important preparedness is and what can happen when they are caught off guard. Avon Grove Lacrosse did see the importance of finding time to build a program and ensure their coaches were properly trained. They partnered with their local fire department and required all coaches who were not already trained to participate in CPR and AED training. Coordinating schedules for drills can also be a challenge, but holding drills right after the training when you already have coaches and volunteers together can eliminate scheduling headaches and be a great way to practice what you just learned. Be sure to incorporate any helmets, pads or other equipment that players wear in your sport to practice a realistic scenario.

All 10 AGL teams received an AED thanks to a fundraising campaign and the generosity of the local community. The AGL organization built small medical safety fees into the player registrations to cover maintenance of the units and future training costs for coaches. In a team of 15 players, an additional $20 on each registration fee can cover the cost and upkeep of a team’s AEDs. This league agreed that this was a small price to pay for their children’s safety. Bryan and Project ADAM® encourage all teams to look into crowd funding for AEDs or asking local business for donations, and having a plan for sustaining your response program, both AED maintenance and regular trainings and drills.

Bryan’s biggest advice is to work with Project ADAM®, utilize their resources and “don’t hesitate, start now.” If you can’t implement a full program meeting all our best practices, start with the steps you can work on now because “doing anything is better than nothing.” He also encourages parents to ask your children’s teams if they have AEDs, emergency response plans, and CPR/AED trained coaches. Parental support on these measures can go a long way in creating change. If teams have these safety measures in place, then they have more than just winning in mind.

To start a cardiac emergency response program in your organization, check out our sports resources under our Heart Safe Initiatives tab, and connect with your local affiliate. It’s never too early to start planning for your season and the safety of your players.