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Lightning Primer: Do You Know When It's Not Safe to Play?

Every organization should have a plan in place to avert catastrophe.

If you are the parent of a youth athlete there’s a very good chance that you’ve watched a sporting event beneath the crash and flash of thunder and lightning.

I know I have. And even with heightened warnings from the media, some youth sports organizations are still putting children at risk. Sometimes it’s “only” a matter of a coach trying to grab a few extra minutes of practice time even as thunder can be heard in the distance. It seems harmless enough if you don’t understand the dynamics of a lightning storm.

Lightning safety became a huge blip on my radar screen many years ago while coaching a baseball game. Although lightning was flashing in the distance, a league official allowed play to continue.

It wasn’t until an ugly black cloud moved in closer and flashed its dangerous tongue directly above the complex that he finally yelled to clear the fields.

Parents and players scrambled for cover. Many ran the distance of three baseball fields to their cars. Some of the players huddled in dugouts. Others stood around looking for their parents.  

The very next flash struck a dugout and split it in half. Four or five players and one coach fell to the ground. Every fiber of hair on my body darted to attention. Parents and children were screaming and running in all directions. Emergency vehicles showed up within minutes and began treating the victims.

That last paragraph didn’t actually happen. But it could have. The point is that each and every youth sports organization should have a plan of action. League officials, game officials, coaches and parents need to be aware of the procedures that will be taken in the event of severe weather. 

The first rule is very simple: If you hear thunder, run for shelter. Lightning can strike from as far as 25 miles away. The second important rule is that you should wait at least 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder or lightning strike before returning outside.

Dugouts, pavilions, and trees are not viable options for cover. Part of any league’s plan should include securing the use of a school building or field house if one is on-site. This becomes more important during practices when many kids are dropped off by parents.

In the absence of a safe structure, create a plan that includes having enough cars available to handle the number of kids in attendance. Each car should have at least one adult in it.

Learn the facts and myths associated with lightning. You’ll be surprised by some of the information.

Assign a parent who is not coaching as a storm monitor. Coaches and game officials are often so focused on the action that they may not notice a change in the weather.

Last season I was at a high school football game where thunder and lightning were present and a dangerous storm was approaching the area. It wasn’t until at least 20 minutes later when a torrential downpour began that the game was halted. What ensued was total chaos.

A couple of months later I saw one of the officials who was working that game. I asked him why it had taken so long to make the decision to clear the field. He told me they (the officiating crew) were not aware of the worsening weather conditions. They didn’t hear the thunder. They didn’t see the flashes of lightning.

So it’s obvious that even at the upper levels, there is often a lack of safeguards in place to ensure the safety of those playing as well as in attendance.

While I’m not sure of the chain-of-command (or if it differs from school to school) for interrupting a high school game due to severe weather, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommends that the policy should identify a weather watcher whose job is to look for deteriorating conditions. The weather watcher must have the unchallengeable authority to clear a venue when conditions are unsafe. If this decision is in the hands of the game officials, is it also their responsibility to identify an approaching storm?

In the case of a night game, with its bright lights, cameras flashing, bands playing, loudspeakers blaring, and bodies flying, giving the game official the duty of weather watcher seems a bit much. And as stated above, there is definitely a precedent for such concern. 

Everyone (parents, players, coaches, and league officials) needs to be aware of what their particular league has in place regarding severe weather. It’s also a good idea to have it posted on the organization’s website.

With the proper planning and communication in place, everyone will be protected and accounted for in the event of severe weather.

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