By Chase Straw, Gerald Henry, PhD, and Jennifer Thompson, PhD
Recreational turfgrass sports fields are perhaps the most difficult to manage due to substantial usage, poor construction, and small management budgets. Unfortunately, the combination of these factors often results in low field quality during the playing season (which may be year-round). Disgruntled athletes may discuss imperfections in the fields and question why they can’t be improved. Conversations between athletes may spread to parents or coaches, and then to upper management, until complaints ultimately reach the sports turf manager. At this point, the sports turf manager may ask him or herself a valid question: “Could these athletes manage the field any better?” The obvious answer is no. Sports turf managers are trained professionals at maintaining sports fields, whereas most athletes are not. However, athletes do have knowledge that can be valuable to you: the user experience. Understanding where management does/does not align with the user experience is essential to making sports fields meet realistic user needs.
Minimal research has been conducted to evaluate athletes’ perspectives regarding the fields they play on. Qualitative research methods, such as interviews, can provide new insight into how athletes think about sports fields in ways that are not easily quantified. Unlike quantitative research, the objective is to develop a nuanced understanding of the experiences and opinions of a small number of athletes. This information could potentially bridge current knowledge gaps between sports turf managers and athletes, resulting in improved sports field quality and performance. Our objective for this article was to interview athletes on their home field to investigate what they believe influences field quality and the solutions for improvement.
Twenty-five face-to-face interviews were conducted with athletes from the men’s and women’s rugby and ultimate Frisbee club sports teams at the University of Georgia (UGA). Interviews took place on a heavily used recreational Tifway 419 hybrid bermudagrass field designated for all club sports teams at UGA (men’s and women’s lacrosse, rugby, soccer, and ultimate Frisbee). Interviews were in the spring (April, 12 total) and fall (October and November, 13 total) 2016 academic semesters. Each interview consisted of asking several open-ended questions about that particular field. Here, we focus on the responses received from the questions “What do you believe influences the quality of the field?” and “What are solutions to improve field quality?”
The Institutional Review Board at UGA (a committee that oversees ethical standards in research with human subjects) approved the study before initiation and athletes gave their consent to participate. All interviews were audio recorded to ensure accuracy of responses. Audio recordings were transcribed verbatim and imported into the software ATLAS.ti for qualitative data analysis and eventually the creation of hierarchy diagrams. The analysis involved indexing data (the interview text) according to the topic expressed in the segment of text, then organizing the topics into categories (and if necessary, sub-categories) based on shared ideas.
Influences on field quality
Athletes’ perspectives regarding influences on field quality were broken down into three categories: field management, field use, and weather. Quotes regarding field management were mixed; athletes either had a negative or neutral impression.
Quotes about field use were further grouped into three topics. “Overuse” includes quotes concerning the quantity of people that use the field. Quotes relating to where field practice setup/drills or gameplay takes place are shown in the topic “location of use.” “Other teams” are quotes that put blame on other team participants. Specific blame was placed on teams that significantly deteriorate certain locations within the field (such as goalmouths). Lastly, the “weather” category has a quote explaining the influence weather may have if the field is played on following a rain event.
Athletes’ perspectives regarding solutions to improve field quality were broken down into four categories. “Do nothing” represents suggestions that field managers can’t do anything to improve field quality. One athlete proposed improving field quality through allocation of money to field management alternatives (e.g., more space). The category of “field management” includes a plethora of topics focused on particular management applications and inputs, including aerification, fertilization, irrigation, seeding/sodding, and weed control. Athletes’ recommendations that practice drills and gameplay should be dispersed throughout the field are contained in the “monitor usage” category. Finally, the “no idea” category includes quotes from athletes who admittedly had no suggested solutions for improving field quality.
Results show that athletes are aware of potential influences on field quality. Athletes were familiar with several management practices to improve field quality, but did not appear to fully understand how or why these practices are implemented. Although some of these responses may be humorous to sports turf managers, we do not intend to poke fun at athletes, since they are not expected to be management experts. Rather, our findings highlight an opportunity for you to engage athletes around the rationale for implementing field management practices.
For example, how and why particular management practices are implemented, why they must be implemented at a specific time, how athletes should treat the field after implementation, and why these efforts may ultimately fall short of expectations. Greater transparency from field managers could improve athletes’ understanding about what it takes to properly manage a sports field. As a result, athletes’ perspectives about the field might change, leading to greater acceptance of decisions to close fields or increased awareness about how to avoid causing unnecessary damage during field use (e.g., during practice).
One respondent to the 2017 SportsTurf magazine reader survey requested “more articles for the little guys” and “creative ways to succeed,” particularly with minimal staff and a small budget. Building a stronger relationship with athletes that use your fields could be a starting point. As the turfgrass professional, you are in a position to educate others about the importance and impact of your work. Although we have focused on athletes, the same is true for improving relationships with coaches, parents, and/or administrators. Engaging them through better communication and transparency may be the best strategy for collaboratively maintaining and protecting the quality of your fields.
Chase Straw is a graduate research assistant, University of Georgia, Athens; Gerald Henry, PhD, is an athletic association endowed professor at UGA; and Jennifer Thompson, PhD, is an assistant research scientist at UGA. This article highlights a small portion from the presentation, “Athlete perception and injury risk within natural turfgrass sports fields,” scheduled for the upcoming 2018 STMA Conference in Fort Worth, TX.