You never know when someone will drop a nice piece of wisdom in front of you. Back in the early 1990s, I was a greenhorn turf manager alone at a Sports Turf Managers Association conference. Dick Caton, or “Doc” as he was known, gave a talk about managing people, and his message was so elegantly simple that it stuck with me for the next 25 years. “Hire smart, train hard, manage easy,” Doc told us, and it makes sense.

Hire smart

As a sports field manager, you need creative problem solvers. There is no cookbook here, and you have to be able to think on the fly. The ability to learn is a skill, and educational accomplishments, while important, don’t always equate to the ability to ingeniously generate a solution. I’ve always called our craft a cowboy world, where you have to solve problems resourcefully. In the Old West they spoke of a man’s need for a “proper wit and an adventurous spirit.” That’s what I look for in a hire. Ask candidates about the biggest problem they have solved in any of their previous jobs.

Train hard

Passionate professionals want to learn. They beg for opportunities to gain the trust of the sports field manager on a quality field management team. Mistakes have to be owned, but they also should be an opportunity to learn. Start with safety training and other mandatory items and identify each team member’s skill sets. Then set goals and monitor their progress. If you utilize an individual’s strengths, they will gain the confidence to develop new skills.

Remember, everyone learns a little differently, so a one-size-fits-all training program rarely works. Use off-season fields to provide opportunities to learn new field and turf management skills. People tend to gravitate to the tasks they already know and are comfortable with. Your job as the leader is to gently push them away from this security and mix up those task assignments. However, when the bright lights are on for a big game, or weather challenges tighten up field prep windows, this is when you get everyone using their best skills; it’s not a good time to train. A lower-paid operative who is learning is a more motivated turf team member than a higher-paid employee that isn’t learning. Motivated employees tend to stick around.

Manage easy

You don’t have to be mean or scary to get the best out of your turf team. Fear doesn’t motivate beyond the task at hand. It erodes morale and productivity. You may be a better sports field manager than the turf team members, but that doesn’t make you a better person. Drop the ego. Be a patient teacher. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge when you are wrong and always be honest with your staff. Take your job seriously, not yourself. If you praise more than you criticize, mistakes will dwindle down.

Start two simple team award systems. Buy two different sets of stickers, like the helmet stickers football coaches give out to players. In front of the entire team, hand out the awards to individuals as they earn them. One award for creative ideas that make the field better and/or improve efficiency. A different sticker is awarded for heroic effort. Your turf team will put them on their lockers, hats, or anywhere else the rest of the team can see them. It will become a friendly competition to improve every day, and it costs almost nothing.