Asthma, air quality, and athletes: The community coach’s role

Collage of three images including young girl using an inhaler; female athletes and a coach, coach and young boy playing tennis.

Imagine showing up to your first practice as a new coach. As the team begins their warm-up jog, you notice one of your players lagging behind. It looks like they are having trouble breathing; they keep touching their chest and pausing during the jog. You start to feel very worried, and you’re not sure what to do.

Coaching for the coaches

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Asthma Program staff want to make sure all Minnesota coaches, parents, or youth do not feel helpless in this situation. It’s why they, along with input from Minnesota youth sport coaches and technical review support from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) staff developed a free, 35-minute online training course to share information with youth coaches about what to do when a player has asthma symptoms or an asthma attack.

The Athletes and Asthma: The Community Coach’s Role course uses real-life interactive scenarios an athlete may experience and offers quizzes to test what decisions you might make as a coach when confronted with an athlete who shows symptoms or who has asthma.

People who take the training course will learn:

  • Basic anatomy-physiology of asthma.
  • Myths vs. facts about asthma.
  • Symptoms of asthma or an asthma attack.
  • The coach’s role in helping players control their asthma.
  • Rescue vs. control asthma medications (inhalers).
  • How to prevent or treat asthma symptoms.
  • How to identify triggers of asthma.
  • What to do during an asthma attack.
  • Suggestions for working with parents and players.

The course ends with a 10-question quiz and a printable certificate of completion.

The course has been shared widely through media, outreach events, presentations, and a partnership with the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission (MASC) since it was released in 2019. “Our goal is for all youth sports coaches in school districts and communities to complete this training. Knowing what to do when an asthma attack occurs can save a life,” said Jayme Murphy, grants and special initiatives coordinator at MASC.

Asthma and asthma triggers

In Minnesota, approximately one in 24 children have asthma. It is so common that on a sports team of 15 people, it is likely at least one child could have asthma.

During normal breathing, air flows freely in and out of the lungs. During an asthma attack or episode, swelling of the airway’s lining increases, muscles surrounding the airways tighten, and thick mucus clogs the tiny airways making it difficult to breathe. Imagine trying to breathe through a straw for several minutes. This is what it might feel like to have an asthma attack. Learn more about asthma and how it affects the lungs.

People with asthma can be more sensitive to their surroundings. Tobacco smoke, pets (animal dander), mold, and harsh smelling chemicals are a few examples that can trigger asthma attacks. But did you know air pollution can also cause problems for people with asthma?

Outdoor air pollution and asthma

Outdoor air pollution is a mixture of many different gases and particles from man-made sources like vehicle exhaust, wildfire or wood-burning smoke, road dust, and industrial emissions. A poor air quality day can make it harder to breathe, trigger asthma attacks, or cause wheezing and coughing.

The Athletes and Asthma course includes a module on air pollution and asthma, along with an explanation of the Air Quality Index (AQI), a tool the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state governments, and Tribes use to report on air quality. There are six color-coded levels of concern corresponding to ranges of index values. An AQI at or below 100 is generally considered safe for most people. Anything above 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups initially, and then for everyone starting at 151. The course provides recommendations on what levels are unsafe and when extra precautions should be taken.

“Coaches might not be sure about what to do when air quality is poor,” said Matt Taraldsen, supervisory air quality meteorologist at the MPCA. “We wanted to make sure coaches understand the AQI and know how and when to keep their players safe when air pollution levels are elevated. We also know children are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality. Those impacts can be felt when the AQI is orange, a level where healthy adults are less likely to be affected.”

World Health Organization data shows that nearly all of the global population breathe air that exceeds their health-based air quality guidelines. Even in Minnesota, where air quality has slowly improved since 2008, air pollution continues to harm our health. Low-income residents of color face greater burdens and negative health impacts from air pollution. Similar inequities exist for asthma rates in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Health is working to address these challenges through the free course and involvement in Environmental Initiative’s Clean Air Minnesota partnership.

What you can do

This World Asthma Day, complete the Athletes and Asthma: The Community Coach’s Role course or share the link with a coach. Check the Air Quality Index by downloading the MPCA’s Minnesota Air app or follow @mnpca_aqi on Twitter. Being air quality aware puts you in charge of your health and lets you make informed decisions about the air you breathe on the field or off.

May is also Asthma Awareness Month. The Minnesota Department of Health will be sharing tools and resources throughout the month to promote asthma awareness in your community. Follow MDH on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and check out the MDH Asthma Program website at to learn more.

Kelly Albright Raatz is a Communications and Program Planner at the Minnesota Department of Health’s Asthma Program. She co-managed the creation of MDH’s Asthma and Athletes the Community Coach’s Role training. She has 20 years of experience working with internal and external teams at the local, county, state, and federal levels to address the health needs of children, youth, and adults across Minnesota.