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.
"A lot of things I'm doing I've stolen from other people," he said. "There aren't a lot of secrets. We're dealing with less-than-perfect situations because that's the nature of our budgets. Almost everything I've done I've gotten a piece of it from someone else.
"For me a lot of it is trying to work with local coaches and athletic directors to share what we're doing. Our players have to play on their fields too and I want to go somewhere that's safe and playable as much as I want them to play on our safe and playable surface."
Moran said even though his school doesn't have any synthetic surfaces, he's not sure he'd prefer their less intensive management because his system for natural turf is working so well. For those with synthetic turf fields, and those considering them, today's care makes use of a mix of the old and the new.
Darren Gill, senior vice president of marketing and innovation for a synthetic turf company headquartered in Montreal, said the foundation for maintaining and even lengthening the life of the fields is the BARS approach: Brushing, Aerating, Raking and Sweeping.
Gill said brushing redistributes the infill, aerating and raking are to fluff or rejuvenate to soften up the surface, and sweeping removes debris from the top.
"Visually, sweeping is most important," Gill said. "The rest are for performance."
His company provides manuals and videos to help clients, and because of its global business and local partners, it can either directly or indirectly provide crews for hands-on deep cleaning and repair. Maintenance equipment has improved over the years as well, Gill said, as has research and overall understanding of synthetic surface needs.
"It's better today than it certainly ever has been," Gill said. "We continue to see our clients are t
One of the crucial tools for this improvement is knowledge, and not just in research. Just as Moran had to understand how coaches' practice habits were affecting fields, the synthetic turf industry has moved toward deeper dives into how its fields are reacting to today's increased multi-use wear and tear.
The BARS system is general, as is the cycle of every four to six weeks for using those steps. Of course, not every organization with synthetic fields handles the same load; some are sports only, some a mix of sports and entertainment and other events, and some have more sports than others.
"We're trying to build intelligence for our clients in terms of what (four to six weeks) means," said Gill. "So instead of linking it to a timeframe, we can link to activity and also understanding the wear patterns on their own fields. What we see in some cases is certain areas of fields are highly used versus others.
"Typically we see the area closest to the field access, the on-off areas, are used the most. What we try to do is educate our clients that if they always use one area of the field that area will get worn faster. You see that carpet pattern in most offices, where most people are walking that area will get worn faster, and our fields react similarly."
Last year the company began offering a monitoring and alert system originally designed for natural turf. The setup is simple: Two sensors per field are attached to light poles for the height and electricity necessary. Each set of two sensors, good for a rectangular field of 80,000 to 95,000 square feet, costs $20,000, Gill said. The sensors can generate heat and usage maps, but that's not all.
Gill said the information not only tells operators how, how often, how long and where the field is being used, the system uses the information to make recommendations to operators on maintenance tactics and scheduling and sends alerts for execution. The equipment used for maintenance can be registered with the system so that it can recognize them and the work they do.
"We're just trying to give them alerts that it's time to rotate—'Instead of using this end of the field, the west side, go to the east side,' or vice versa," said Gill. "So we're trying to use this analytic data to help them understand what those four to six weeks should really mean to them. In some cases, fields are actually underused, and not used as much as our clients think they are, so those four to six weeks can extend past that six weeks so what we also want to do is be sure our clients aren't over-maintaining their fields and that they're maintaining properly."
Yes, you can actually care for a synthetic field too much, Gill said. It is ideal for the infill to settle, he said, and aggressive raking can prevent or retard this process.
Other benefits include surface temperature alerts, so use can be delayed or postponed and cooling methods can begin; data to show stakeholders like taxpayers or accounting departments the field or fields are being used according to plan; and with a multiple fields client, each field can have a customized maintenance plan.
"Before, there would just be a rotation," Gill said. "Now, higher-use fields get more maintenance and lower-use fields get less."
Wes Howard is an AfterCare Manager for another synthetic turf company, and his job is to oversee what customers need for their fields in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Southwest regions of the United States.
"With general maintenance of these fields, the standard is an eight-year warranty," Howard said. "There's no guarantees, but I can tell you if you take care of your field and you maintain your field, that eight years can turn into nine, 10, 11, 12 years."
The company sells maintenance packages and either handles the work directly with crews traveling the country or partners with local businesses to perform what's needed. Packages offered take either one day or two under the supervision of certified personnel; Howard said non-certified care can hinder warranty claims.
The one-day package includes inspection, grooming, magnetic metal collecting, professional cleaning, disinfection, and a review of maintenance practices with the client. The two-day program adds multilevel vacuuming, multilevel decompacting and more extensive grooming.
Additional services include two-year antimicrobial protection, baseball mound cleaning, special cleaning and maintenance for field hockey, infill removal and top-off, and removal and replacement of turf and infill in worn areas.
Howard said the yearly and alternate year deep cleans are important, but nothing replaces everyday monitoring. The golden rule is to keep the fields clean, he said.
"Years ago, I was talking to a coach whose fields always looked fantastic, and he said 'You know what I do every Wednesday? I get the boys and we line 'em up and we walk across the field and anything we find we pick it up,'" Howard said. "'Smartest thing I've ever done with this field.'"
Clients are left with 2,000 pounds of infill and repair kits and any minor repairs can be talked through. Howard has additional suggestions, other than picking up litter, for daily and periodic care that help with performance and longevity:
>> Decompact once a year, or at least once every other year. If you let it go too long without decompacting, it might not be possible, Howard said. "A heavy-use field that's two or three years old and they've never done anything with it, we can decompact that field and the (GMAX) numbers can really change," he said. "An eight-year-old field we don't decompact because the fibers can't take it."
>> Use a pull-behind groomer for every 120 to 140 hours of use. "We recommend you groom the field two days before (a game)," Howard said. "Don't groom the day of because static electricity in the infill will make it stick to fibers."
>> Monitor usage and alternate traffic patterns when possible. "For every field in downtown Charlotte, N.C., there's a field in Nowhere, Neb.," said Howard. "These are not maintenance-free fields. There's a lot going on, and a lot of people are figuring out that maintenance makes a difference." RM
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