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Maintain effective communications with user groups when managing turf for multi-use sports: Lyons to


December 2, 2013
By Mike Jiggens


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Managing athletic fields which are used for a number of different sports can be a nightmare for the sports turf manager. Each sport has its own set of wear patterns and, although that might be acceptable for that particular user group, others groups aren’t quite as accepting since turf loss in one area of a field can be particularly annoying to athletes of other sports.

When a municipality has few fields to go around for all groups to use, countering the problem of excessive wear can be especially tricky.

The University of Guelph’s Dr. Eric Lyons addressed the issue of diverse sports field use in September at the annual field day of the Sports Turf Association in Mississauga.

When multiple user groups share a field, and particulary when their respective sports’ seasons overlap one another, one group will often blame another for any field damage that becomes detrimental to its own sport’s level of playability.

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Lyons said that because each user group is a client of a sports turf manager, embarking on an effective means of communication is critical.

“We have a group of people that we serve,” he said. “For most of us, it’s the taxpayers in our own community. It’s our neighbours, and they will appreciate or not appreciate what we do based on how well we communicate with them.”

Communication is a two-way street, Lyons said, and sports turf managers must not only listen, but educate.

Often, communicating by actions rather than words is the most effective means.

Among all sports played by youth in Canada, soccer has, by far, the most participants, doubling the number of those who play hockey. The youngest of those soccer players typically play their games on half of a regulation-sized field, using the sidelines as their goal lines. The goal mouth areas on a soccer field usually see the most wear, and mini-soccer therefore creates wear in areas that aren’t good for football or rugby.

Lyons said simple communications with soccer user groups can help avoid awkward confrontations. By painting the goal line for mini-soccer outside the regular sideline, most wear will be realized outside the regulation play area for both football and rugby, keeping those user groups appeased. That can be accomplished through simple communications with the soccer group “and does wonders for your wear patterns, especially with multi-use fields.”
Turfgrass managers generally concentrate their management practices down the centre third of a sports field, Lyons said.

“We can aerate the centre third of the field four times a year, relieving compaction, and do the shoulders only once or twice a year.”

The practice, which includes overseeding, maximizes efficiency but, depending upon the wear pattern, one might be targeting the wrong part of the field.

Turfgrass managers, therefore, need to know what sports are being played on their fields and understand where most wear occurs.

Worn goal mouths can be managed through heavy overseeding or by sodding every couple of years once the affected area is relieved of compaction.

If painted lines are requested by a user group, it is they who should be responsible for funding the work. Lyons said user groups will normally accept the cost and responsibility for line painting because it gives them a sense of control.

With diminishing resources and the required labour to do the work, “do we really have time to spend out there doing this?”

Soccer groups tend to prefer lower mowing heights, but not all user groups share that preference.
“They (soccer groups) like it mowed like Manchester United mows their field. They want it mowed at 25 millimetres which is one inch.”

A study conducted at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute looked at low mowing heights on soccer fields. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, soccer pitches are primarily grassed with perennial ryegrass. In North America, however, Kentucky bluegrass is preferred. A newer dwarf Kentucky bluegrass variety has been found to survive lower mowing heights, but it’s not conducive to a pesticide-free environment.

“It actually survives the mowing quite well, but we can’t control weeds anymore.”

In the mowing height study, turf cut above one inch was cut with a rotary mower while that below one inch was cut with a walk-behind reel mower. At the beginning of the study, the turf cut at the lower height looked ideal, Lyons said.

“I can see why soccer clubs want it. If you can control the weeds, these dwarf Kentucky blues do quite well at this mowing height.”

But it was discovered that as mowing heights got below 11/2 inches, weed populations went up. The grasses survived the lower mowing heights, but weren’t as competitive with weeds.

The research also looked at divot recovery. Turf was slower to recover from wear from a single divot at the lower mowing heights.

“You get less growth. You get less creeping in.”

The study concluded that it wasn’t a problem for dwarf Kentucky bluegrass to survive at lower mowing heights, but the increasing presence of grassy and broadleaf weeds at lower heights posed a real challenge.

“In a pesticide-free environment, broadleaf weeds will be a problem, and low mowing means slower recovery from wear.”

This would mean municipalities would have to control access and not book their fields as often. There is also a labour cost associated with mowing low because the job will have to be done more frequently.

Again, communication is the key for sports field managers to educate user groups about what is involved with maintaining shorter-cut turf, Lyons said. Posting such information on an official website will allow user groups to learn for themselves the drawbacks associated with lower mowing heights.

Except for football and rugby, all other groups using a field mainly for soccer prefer lower mowing heights.

“The education you provide for the soccer groups will go to all these other multi-use groups.”

Lyons said the soccer groups will have to understand that mowing heights must be higher than they would ideally like unless they wish to pay a premium for a field’s use.

Football is the second most popular sport played on a typical multi-use field with rigid field specifications expected. A crown is acceptable and is expected, but the issue is the crown’s degree.

“When I played college ball, there were fields where I could stand at the 50-yard line—and I’m six-foot-two—and looking across the field, you would not see the coach of the other team below the waist.”

Lyons said those were synthetic turf fields where it was important for water to run off the sides because there was no infiltration.

Soccer teams worry about grades of four or five per cent, but a 11/2 per cent grade is generally deemed acceptable.

Field dimensions are similar for both soccer and football, but wear patterns differ for each sport. Most wear during football use occurs between the hash marks with a wider wear pattern developing around the centre of the field.
“You get very interesting use patterns on football fields.”

The point on a football field where a converted extra point is kicked also produces a lot of wear. Lyons suggested sports turf managers could work with football user groups to recommend to coaches that conversion practice take place in the end zone behind the uprights, thereby minimizing the amount of wear on the field itself.

“The good thing about football is it’s a seasonal use.”

A season typically begins in July and goes to the end of October. In areas of British Columbia, where weather isn’t as much of an issue as it is in other parts of the country, soccer and football avoid overlapping seasons. Usually there is a month in between the sports where specific wear patterns can be addressed through overseeding and other means.

Rugby field dimensions are a little more flexible and have less defined wear patterns. Most wear comes during a scrum which can occur virtually anywhere on the field, but normally about five metres from the sidelines.

Rugby groups “get” that they are rough on fields, Lyons said, “so they try their best not to be bad on the fields. But if you get guys who used to play football playing rugby, that culture gets lost.”

Lyons said he once had a football coach in university who had previously played rugby, but he understood what could happen to the field and instructed his players to move to other areas of the field during practice to prevent excessive wear.

Some rugby clubs, in fact, will go out the next day and repair divots on the field.

Overseeding rugby pitches requires different concentrations of seed, which is the opposite of soccer and football field overseeding.

“So, if you have a multi-use field for rugby, soccer and football, you might have to overseed the whole field.”

Lacrosse is another sport which often shares the same field with soccer, football and rugby groups. At the youth level, the sport is played by almost as many children who play football and soccer, but participation drops off rapidly after the age of 14.

Lyons said lacrosse produces interesting wear patterns, adding the first time he set foot on a lacrosse field he thought there had been horses on the playing surface. Horseshoe-like impressions were left on the field along the sidelines, but he learned they were the result of players beating their curved sticks on the ground as a means of rallying their teammates.

Those who coach both box lacrosse (played indoors) and field lacrosse often put their players through the same type of practice drills. While wear isn’t an issue in an indoor arena setting, it becomes one outside, particularly when the same drill is done over and over again in the same spot on the field.

“They take that same mindset right onto the field and that creates some issues.”

The goal in field lacrosse is set almost 14 metres in front of the end line which leaves a large worn area in front of the soccer penalty spot when the same field is used for soccer. That area of wear doesn’t usually sit well among soccer groups. Certain lacrosse drills can be practised elsewhere on the field to minimize wear in the goal mouth areas, Lyons said.

“That’s where education can really take over.”

Cricket is a sport that is catching on in Canada, which is likely due to a rise in immigrants from British Commonwealth countries. The game is played with two distinct sets of playing surfaces: the pitch, in which the wickets are located and where the act of bowling takes places, and the field.

“They (cricket user groups) don’t care about the field much,” Lyons said. “They’re happy to have a spot. They care about the pitch.”

What makes the pitch unique is that it is intentionally manipulated to be firm and hard.

“They want it firm and hard. When the ball hits, it doesn’t scatter.”

A cricket pitch is rolled daily in the days leading up to a match and it is mowed as low as possible. Its mowing height will usually be lowered to 12 millimetres from 25 millimetres and then scalped right down to seven millimetres on the day before a game.

“This is what they want. Do they demand this from you? No. They’re very reasonable.”

For cricket, it is the soil—not the turf—which is prepared for play.

“All you need is enough root mass to hold the soil together while you play.”

When a game has ended, the turf is allowed to grow out again, and then the process to scalp it down is repeated prior to the next game.

“The pitch is actually the soil patch with roots in it to hold it together. And you need an extensive renovation at the end of the season to get the pitch back.”

Because of the stringent demands involved in creating a proper cricket pitch, it is virtually impossible for a municipality to create one on a multi-use field. A pitch, however, can be created on space between existing soccer fields which allows part of the adjacent soccer field to be used for the field itself.

Lyons said non-competitive cricket groups are concerned only about the pitch and not necessarily about the field itself.

A sport which has become popular among young adults yet is not friendly toward turfgrass is ultimate, sometimes referred to as ultimate flying disk or ultimate frisbee.

“I really hate what this sport does to athletic fields,” Lyons said. “It’s the worst of any sport, from my observation. It’s worse that football. It’s worse than anything else, primarily because it’s played by adults, and, secondly, what do you do with the disk when someone’s guarding you? You pivot, and you’re wearing cleats.”

That movement in itself, done multiple times during the course of a game, can destroy a field, he said.

Played mainly by 20 to 35-year-olds in leagues set up to make a profit, ultimate doesn’t use referees and requires no special equipment.

Lyons said it is imperative for sports turf managers to communicate with ultimate user groups when the potential for significant field damage is so great. Because the leagues are for profit, the groups will usually listen, he said.
The answer, he said, is to perhaps charge ultimate user groups a premium to be able to play on multi-use fields, especially when extensive work is likely to be required to repair damages.

Sports turf managers need to target their management practices to best deal with specialized wear, Lyons said. Compaction is a sports turf manager’s enemy. It must be relieved or the field will never have grass cover again.
“Overseed, overseed, overseed.”

Creating lines of communication with user groups is a sports turf manager’s best strategy.

“That starts with education from us.”

Lyons said today’s technology must be utilized with increased efforts to drive user groups to informative websites.
Soccer is the dominant sport on multi-use fields and will determine a field’s management. Most municipalities can’t afford to have separate fields for other sports. Although soccer will dominate, sports turf managers must be aware of the other groups which also want to utilize multi-use fields.

Lyons said soccer is well-organized with an active administration, and clubs in Ontario are big and powerful and tend to do a lot of complaining.

“They demand a lot from you. Some of you look at it as a pain and some as a challenge.”

Most complaints about the condition of a field will come from soccer, he said, yet it’s important that a sports turf manager knows what sports are being played on his fields and where most wear is occurring. Traffic must be managed accordingly and maintenance efficiencies properly targeted.

“When you have a lacrosse pitch or a cricket pitch, how do you manage that field differently than you would a soccer field?”

During his presentation, Lyons shared some statistics regarding participation in sports among Canadians. According to a federal Ministry of Heritage survey conducted in 2010, sports participation in Canada is on the decline. This has led to Canadians becoming more sedentary and less healthy. The federal government is concerned by such statistics because of the increasing cost of health care.

“We need to get people more active and provide opportunities for them.”

Accessibility is key, Lyons said.

“We have to find efficiencies in our operations to make sure sport is accessible to the widest number of people. We keep our costs down, the cost of maintaining the fields goes down and accessibility goes up.”

Although soccer is king among field sports in Canada, those who use the same field for other sports are taxpayers as well, “and determine our worth long term. Our job as sports turf managers is getting more and more important.”