Feature Article - February 2020
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Field Goals

Making Multi-Use, Multi-Sports Fields Work

By Joe Bush

It's not only the rise in multi-use philosophy that has increased stress on fields, the number of sports played on them has surged in the past decade as well.

Communities and schools can increase revenue and better justify tax dollars when more people are on their fields, but those benefits mean the strategies and tactics of the care and feeding of those surfaces must be recalculated and put into practice.

The expense to maintain fields, whether natural or synthetic, includes equipment, chemicals, water and labor, and while the thinking on how to handle extra usage changes, the dedication to efficiency does not.

An infographic published by the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) compared the costs of maintaining natural and synthetic fields at the high school and college levels.

A Kansas high school spends $6,800 and 360 labor hours a year on its synthetic field, while Michigan State University spends $22,760 and 280 hours. A South Carolina high school native soil field gets 300 labor hours and $9,450 in care per year, while Duke University devotes 480 hours and $24,550.

Obviously colleges have more resources, but neither level wants to waste money or labor. After the expense of installation, decreasing expense and lengthening field life is all about management.

Marc Moran is an agriculture and turf science teacher at Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, Va., and since 2001 he's combined his curriculum with the management of the school's natural turf practice and game fields. His labor force for many tasks is pulled from his classes—they're paid with T-shirts, he said—and his system for field management depends on rotation of use and communication with the athletic director and coaches. There are 18 acres with nine fields in all used by the high school and middle school.

Communication is essential to success because Moran asks his fellow coaches across all field sports to be mindful of their practice habits. Moran, who coaches football as well, has watched the practices of soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, baseball and softball to identify how those sports' coaches can limit wear and tear on their practice fields. He has spoken at STMA events on how he's shaped his approach.

"Coaches tend to be creatures of habit, so we try to work with them to better organize practice or instill a mindset of traffic rotation," said Moran. "If coaches rotate traffic we don't have to aerate as much, we don't have to reseed as much, we don't have to re-sod as much."

The schools have no dedicated turf maintenance department—just Moran, his students and the cooperation of the coaches. Moran said he came up with the idea of traffic rotation watching the agility ladder drill in football. Coaches placed connected boxes on the ground for short footwork sprints and repeatedly placed it in the same place.

"By the end of the first day it was all chewed out where 60 players had been through it," he said. "(The next day) they'd put it in the same location. It didn't take long for me to say, 'Hey, why don't we move it over?' It was a change of practice and coaches are creatures of habit, and I'm a coach too and I had the same habits too so we tried to communicate with coaches, 'Hey, you can still run every drill you've ever run but let's just move it over today."

Simple and effective, and Moran found more ways to relieve pressure on isolated areas. He began encouraging the use of cones instead of paint for other drills, because once paint is put down, that area tends to be used again and again. When the entire offense runs plays against a defense, the action moves down the field rather than repeats in the same area.

Moran also proposed closing the stadium field to practices. Again, common sense met with resistance, emphasizing again the value of diplomacy.

"That was difficult for a lot of coaches, but we just promised them, 'Hey, trust us, this might be inconvenient for you in the short term but long term you'll see the difference.' We saw a turnaround in our stadium performance in two or three months, and our practice fields improved through our management plan.

"All that was done through communications. Telling them, 'here's what I need you to do and here's why,' then show them here's what we did over here and here's how it worked."

The crease areas in soccer and lacrosse and field hockey get the most abuse, so on the game fields, teams aren't allowed to warm up on the game crease. For practice, in addition to the use of portable creases, Moran had the coaches move the goals and thus move the creases.

"Two years ago, we had to re-sod an area that was 8 feet by 40 feet, and last year we were able to reduce that to two 6-by-4-foot areas," Moran said.

Since the addition of lacrosse and field hockey, the year-round field schedule is football and field hockey in the fall, and soccer and lacrosse in the spring. Both those times of year involve plenty of rain, and Moran has a plan for that, too. He said soil compacts 20 times as much when it's wet so it's important to judge the soil condition in rainy weather and ask the athletic director and coaches nicely to adjust their needs for revenue, scheduling and practice.

"If you can put a footprint in the surface of the soil then it's too wet to practice," he said. "You're going to make a long-term impact in the short term. We try to share with coaches the long-term effects of a short-term decision. When people ask me what to say, I just tell the athletic director whether I think it's safe and playable and he trusts our viewpoint."

Moran said there may be some options for alternative practice areas when fields are at risk. Is there an indoor facility somewhere in your community, perhaps at a local college? The college may see it as a favor to the community and be willing to work with schools.

"There's not a lot of pushback because they understand the team aspect of what we're trying to accomplish," Moran said. "Our goal is for every kid to have something safe and playable."

The rotate-and-communicate approach is ideal for limited resources, meaning most everyone with fields to maintain. Moran said knowledge sharing is a key feature of the turf management industry.