In the blink of a few back-to-back games, athletic fields can go from beautiful to blah. Two top sports field managers reveal how to keep everything under control.
Maintaining Natural Turf
By Jody Gill
Jody Gill is Grounds Coordinator at Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kan. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
It's no secret that maintaining natural turf fields is complicated. Because we are dealing with living organisms and Mother Nature, there are many variables and options. Different climates require different maintenance plans, methods for controlling weeds and pests can change from year to year, and there are many choices for seeding and fertilizers.
I doubt I'm going out on a limb by stating that many athletic directors don't really want to think about these things. I have a tremendous respect for athletic directors and how difficult the job has become. I see how many hours you work each week, and I know that you really don't have time to worry about the cation exchange capacity of the soil on the football field or how many pounds of potassium was applied to the baseball field.
More likely, you just want to know that the field is safe and ready for play so you don't have to re-schedule the game. You want to trust your sports field manager to get the job done. Certainly, there are some athletic directors who are passionate about their fields and take an active role in maintaining them correctly, which is great. This article is for the administrator who wants great-looking fields but doesn't have the time to understand the life cycle of the black turfgrass ataenius beetle.
So what is an athletic director's role in field maintenance? What can you do to extend the life of your fields and help your sports field manager at the same time? One of the best actions you can take is to develop and implement a field wear management plan.
There is a direct correlation between field wear and field maintenance. As the wear increases on a field, the frequency of maintenance and repairs increases, along with costs. Field wear tends to not be balanced. It occurs on certain areas and not others, causing compaction and thinning turf in high-use areas that can't easily be fixed.
It is tough for a sports field manager to change how a field is used. But an athletic director can do so by working with his or her coaches to develop field use patterns that spread wear around the field.
PROBLEM & SOLUTION
Wear on natural grass fields begins as thinning turf. The more severe problems that follow are not the result of thin grass in that area. The problems get worse because the activity that caused the initial thinning turf continues to occur in the same spot, over and over again.
The thin area then becomes bare soil. When it rains the bare soil is trampled into a muddy mess, which becomes a bowl that holds even more water the next time it rains. Then the sun comes out and bakes the compacted soil until it becomes pottery. Drainage is impeded, the grade is destroyed, and grass simply won't grow there anymore. If allowed to reach this point, fixing the problem is expensive and requires closing the field for a period of time.
The solution to excessive wear is to change the use patterns on your field so that areas of thinning grass do not continue to get used. Essentially, you are preventing the problem before it starts.
Think about it this way: How much does it cost to have the tires on your car rotated? Very little, or maybe nothing, depending on where you purchase your tires. How much does it cost to buy new tires? A lot. Tire rotation on your car is nothing more than a wear management plan.
With this concept in mind, take a good look at your sports fields. Is the entire field worn evenly? Is the wear isolated to certain areas? Is the west end of the field worn more than the east end? Do you know why the field is showing these patterns of wear?
Think of your field in terms of "use zones." Different sports impact a field's use zones in different ways. Football games result in more wear to the center of the field between the 20-yard lines, between the hash marks, and on the sidelines. Soccer games result in more wear in the goal mouths, corner kick spots, and the narrow path created by the line judges as they run up and down the touchline. These would be the high-use zones of the field.
Is there anything you can do to change the patterns causing extensive field wear? With a little creativity, the answer is yes. Coaches get in habits of using fields the same way during practices, but those habits can be broken. And there are even some solutions for changing wear patterns during games.
WEAR MANAGEMENT PLAN
In order to develop a wear management plan, your coaches must understand what you are trying to do and why. I suggest having a meeting with the coaching staff about this topic, and getting their buy-in. Show them how it is in their best interest to spread usage around the fields.
From there, take some time to analyze the wear patterns of your field. Why is the grass thinning in certain areas? Ask your coaches for their insights. Then figure out how to change those patterns to more evenly distribute the wear and tear. Specific areas to pay attention to include:
Lines: The easiest way to kill grass on a football field is to paint a line on it. The problem is not the paint, but the invitation it extends to coaches to use that line as a starting point for drills. I always cringe when I hear the football coach repeatedly yell, "Everybody line up on the 20." I'd rather hear, "Everybody line up on the 22." When players do the same drill day after day in the same spot, the grass goes down in defeat.
One coach at our school had the whole team run single file down the goal line, sidestep down the far sideline to the 10, backpedal on the 10 to the near sideline, sidestep to the 20, and repeat this over and over, day after day, until there was no grass left to paint lines on. He felt it was very important for his players to follow those lines when running the agility drills. We came up with a plan to paint additional lines in different colors so he could tell the team to run the blue lines on Tuesday and Thursday, and run the yellow lines on Monday and Wednesday. (Since this was not a game field, we had flexibility to do this.) When the players would start to wear off the paint, we would re-paint the lines several feet away from the previous ones to move that concentrated wear. This saved the white lines for running actual plays.
Such a plan works well for band practice also. You have to buy a little more paint but that is much cheaper and easier than field renovation.
Warmups: Have you ever noticed that the end of the practice field closest to the building or parking lot has more wear than the far end? Team stretching and warmups always seem to take place at the same end of the field, usually closest to the locker rooms. Make it a habit for coaches to use the far end of the field for warm-up drills and you will see a huge difference in field wear by the end of the season.
Football: Make the center of the field off limits except for scrimmages and game situations. Individual and unit drills should never take place on the game field. We know that coaches need lines painted for just about every practice drill. I can assure you that your sports field manager will be more than happy to paint lines anywhere you like if it means moving a drill off the game field.
Soccer/Lacrosse: The high use zones on soccer and lacrosse fields are not as large as on football fields, so practices can usually be held on the game fields. However, there is the problem of heavy wear at the goal mouths and creases, corner kick spots, and touchlines. A great solution here is to periodically shift the entire field to move the high use zones.
To do this, allow more space than needed for your soccer and lacrosse field areas. Then move the painted field five to seven yards from the previous location midway through your season. (You will obviously need portable goals for the idea to work.) With this strategy, you will see a huge improvement in turf quality where the wear tends to be much more concentrated.
If you don't have room to move the field, you can spread the wear around the goal mouth by relocating the goals for practices. When not in use, remember to lock the goals together, away from the goal creases, to prevent unauthorized use. It is important that portable goals are always re-anchored when they are moved to prevent injuries from them tipping.
Baseball/Softball: Since baseball and softball are primarily played on the skinned surface and not in the grass, it is much easier to manage the wear. What areas of the skinned infield must be filled and packed daily? Home plate and the pitching rubber, right? So it should be common sense that players and coaches should never pitch or bat from the grass. We are constantly telling players from visiting teams to move soft toss off of the grass and onto the warning track where it is much easier to repair holes.
A softball pitcher does not use a mound, so she often warms up anywhere, including the outfield grass. Within four or five pitches, she has dug a hole in the grass. The same is true when baseball coaches throw batting practice from just in front of the mound without covering the grass. Just a little common sense can prevent long term damage to the grass on these fields.
Your field wear management plan can be as simple as frequent reminders to coaches to be aware of the patterns developing on their fields and to make an effort to change them. It could also be a much more complicated and detailed plan of action. Either way, anything you can do to help manage and reduce field wear will save you money and time while keeping your fields safe and aesthetically pleasing.
On Your Own
If you do not have a sports field manager to oversee turf management at your school and you need to understand the intricacies of grasses and fertilizers yourself, there are many resources available to help. My favorite source of information is the Sports Turf Managers Association Web site at: www.stma.org. Click on "resources" then click on "technical information" to find more athletic field information than I could ever pack into one article.
Maintaining Synthetic Turf
By Darian Daily
Darian Daily is Head Groundskeeper at Paul Brown Stadium, home of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals. He received the 2011 Sport Turf Managers Association's Dick Ericson Award for his leadership and positive influence in field maintenance. He can be reached at: DailyD@pbsl.net.
One of the appeals of synthetic turf fields is their reputation for being maintenance-free. But, as the saying goes, nothing in life is free. And that includes the maintenance of synthetic field surfaces.
Here at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, we have learned a lot about maintaining synthetic infill turf since we converted from natural grass eight years ago. Back then, there was not much information available on the topic, and we used trial and error to determine best practices. Now, we have developed a comprehensive plan to keep the field in top shape, one that can work at a pro stadium or a high school field.
Synthetic fields don't require the same upkeep as natural turf, but paying close attention to a few critical areas will allow the surface to function at its best. Regular maintenance will also help extend the life of the field.
There are three general areas to pay attention to when preparing any athletic field for play. First is to make the field safe. Second is for it to be playable. Third, it should be aesthetically pleasing. The following maintenance program has worked very well to fulfill all three goals at Paul Brown Stadium, and it can be used at any level of play, with any budget.
Everyone involved in sports understands there is always a potential for injury. Our goal is to eliminate the playing surface as a cause of injury. This requires two areas of maintenance: reducing the compaction of the field and removing foreign objects.
Keeping the infill system from getting compacted is the most important safety issue involving a synthetic playing surface. Over time, all fields, both natural and synthetic, will become compacted. This means particles compress together and the surface becomes hard, losing its ability to absorb the energy of the athlete's body. This can do damage to athletes when they fall, slide, or land awkwardly during play. Excess surface compaction could also lead to over-strained joints and fatigue.
The first step is to monitor the compaction of the field. It is recommend to have your field's G-Max level tested at least once a year by an independent contractor. This measures the impact absorption provided by the turf to a player running or falling, as well as the foot stability of the surface as a player runs across it. The G-Max level recommended by the Synthetic Turf Council (STC), using the ASTM F1936 standard, is 165 or below.
If there is compaction, de-compacting is needed. Also referred to as "grooming," this is done with a spring tine rake, which should be rigid enough to dislodge compacted infill but flexible enough to not pull seams and fibers out of the carpet backing.
The program we use is to groom the field after every game, which loosens the infill that has been compacted during the contest. We groom in two directions because the more directions you are able to groom the field, the more level you can make the infill.
However, it's important that you do not get overly aggressive with your grooming regimen, which can leave the infill too loose, causing poor footing. It may take some experimentation to figure out just the right amount of work to be done. You can try grooming the field in one direction, then walk the field and ask for feedback from the athletes. The second time, groom in two directions and get feedback. Continue to experiment and take good notes.
The second safety aspect of maintaining your synthetic field is diligent inspection for foreign objects. At Paul Brown Stadium, we use a magnet to clean our fields once every three months and after concerts or other large on-field events.
The first time we used a magnet was a huge eye opener. I was amazed to see how many screws, nails, batteries, hair pins, paper clips, and other metal objects were retrieved. These objects were not visible from a surface inspection but after grooming took place, the magnet was able to loosen and collect these hazards. I would suggest trying it--you will be stunned at what you find in your field.
A playable field is one that is level. If you have ever walked a synthetic field after a game you will notice that the infill gets displaced from the intense cuts made by athletes while running. These areas need to be re-leveled and allowed to settle and form the firm base athletes need.
The maintenance practice used to accomplish this is "brooming" the field. The term comes from the use of a stiff bristled broom that disturbs and evenly distributes the infill material. The field's manufacturer likely supplied an acceptable brooming apparatus. If not, contact the manufacturer and find out how to get one for your field. There are different amounts of "stiffness" in the brushes that are somewhat specific to particular fields.
We have tried many different routines with brooming, and what has worked best for us is to broom the field two to three times a week during the football season. The first time is usually the day after a game to get the field back in shape. The second time is on Friday, which is typically the team's last day of practice--this ensures the field is level going into the weekend. If we have a home game that Sunday, we will broom the field again after the team practices on Saturday to give it a nice clean look.
In doing the actual brooming, it is important to use different drag patterns on the field. This will keep the field from developing high and low areas. If the operator starts and stops in the same spot every time, the starting point will become depressed and the stopping point will become high. Also, if the operator continuously brooms the field in the same direction or pattern, the fibers will likely fall over, or in the case of an monofilament, the spine of the fiber could possibly "break."
Along with leveling the field, brooming makes the fibers stay upright, which is important for ball roll. Especially for sports such as soccer and field hockey, if the fibers are in good shape, consistent ball speed can be obtained, allowing the athletes to perform at their peak.
To keep your synthetic field aesthetically pleasing, a cleaning program should be followed from day one. After every event, we use a pull-behind blower to blow air across the turf, which removes trash and debris from the field. High air flow machines are great because they move trash and other loose material without displacing the rubber or agitating the fibers. Once the debris is blown onto an athletic track or against a wall, it can easily be picked up. During the football season we repeat this program two or three times a week.
I would also suggest instituting a "deep cleaning" program. This entails the use of a specialized machine that will agitate the rubber, deposit loose material like sunflower seeds, peanut shells, etc., into a collection apparatus, and then remove hair, dander, and fingernails before evenly re-distributing the rubber infill back into the field. At Paul Brown Stadium, we have our field deep cleaned once a year, but if there are many activities on a field, twice yearly cleaning is recommended.
We started this annual cleaning process four years after installing our field and I was amazed to see the trash and filth that was removed. We thought our field was fairly clean! Even with a new field, I feel deep cleaning is warranted.
Proper maintenance procedures will do more than keep your field safe, playable, and looking great. They will also help extend the life of your synthetic turf.
A major factor in the longevity of a synthetic field is keeping the fibers upright. If fibers curl down into the infill, the players' cleats tend to dig into the fibers instead of the infill while they are running and cutting. This can cause the fibers to wear more quickly, leading to fiber loss. If the fibers are standing up, however, the players' cleats dig into the infill, where they are supposed to go.
Both grooming and brooming help to remedy the problem of fibers laying flat. Grooming has the ability to pull fibers that were curled into the infill from cleat traffic back up to the surface after games. And brooming is good for undoing damage from flat sole shoes worn by recreational athletes and band members.
In the future, maybe synthetic turf fields will become maintenance free. But for now, regular care is needed to keep your field in top shape. The time invested will result in a better, safer playing surface over a longer period of time.