Every sports turf manager faces basically the same issue.
As a professional, you hold yourself accountable for the quality of your product. You make sacrifices for that quality, big sacrifices, often involving important time with family and friends. In your off time, you find yourself trying to solve issues on your field and find creative solutions to a dynamic problem. You can’t turn off your computer Friday afternoon, turn off the lights and take two days off confident that your work will be pretty much the same come Monday morning.
Your field doesn’t know what weekends or holidays are — just that it often gets trampled at these times. You make scenarios rather than plans, because so much depends on the weather. You might be out to dinner with friends or maybe at your child’s birthday party when you stop, mid-sentence, and quickly look toward the nearest window. You thought you heard rain, and it wasn’t in the forecast: “Is that wind kicking up? I have covers on the field.”
It takes a big commitment to become a good sports turf manager. Show me a high-quality sports field and I can find you the sports turf manager that takes ownership of that field. He or she refers to that field as “my field.” This happens in all occupations by the way; excellence requires a commitment. For sports turf managers this path of ownership/commitment to our fields is essential for success, but it can also cause a certain level of conflict at work. It’s a good thing to hold yourself accountable and go “all in” with commitment. However, you will eventually learn, it’s not your field.
It is a perilous path for the sports field manager to take. It shows itself when we lose sight of the organizational goals and only think of our own. I don’t know of any facility owners/operators that have a high-quality field as the primary company mission. Some sports field managers begin to think it’s about them, or at least “their” field. It’s an easy trap to fall into when you take such pride in your work.
Former Denver Broncos coach Dan Reeves once gave me some sage advice early in my career. He had to use some recently overseeded areas of the practice fields for an April camp — there was no way to avoid it – — and they chewed up some of my hard work. “Ross, we are not a landscaping company, we are a football club, that’s how we define our success.” (I paraphrase). I try to remember that from time to time.
The Tibetan Buddhists have a tradition in which they painstakingly create an intricate work of art called a mandala. It is made over several weeks using only fine, different-colored sands and a small flow tube. Upon completion, it is ritualistically destroyed with brooms. The sand is swept up, taken to a river and returned to nature. The western mind says “what a waste.” To the monks, this exercise helps them to realize the transitory nature of life. Nothing lasts forever, and this is a good approach for the sports turf manager.
We’ve all stopped to admire the fields we manage when they are looking pristine and in their best shape. We take a deep breath and think of all the planning and work that went into that work of art. Trepidation quickly sinks in when we realize they will soon begin to be torn up. But that is exactly what they were made for. Think of the heavily used field as job security and it is a much less stressful life for a sports field manager.
“There are no grass problems, only people problems,” my college professor used to say. You need people skills to be a good sports field manager. It’s not their fault, but most folks don’t really understand grass and field quality issues. The ability to “sell” the importance of field quality to people who are largely unfamiliar with your work may be as important to success as your agronomic skills. Once they realize that you can see the big picture, they are much more open to your suggestions.
Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan once called the newly hired assistant turf manager Brooks out to see him in the middle of the field during a team practice. Brooks looked at me. “Go,” I said, “see what he wants.” After a short talk with the coach, Brooks came running back to the sideline. “He wants me to catch that fox that’s been running around the fields all day. He’s concerned a player could get hurt. How am I supposed to do that?” I told Brooks that if coach wanted the fox gone, he better jump to it. Brooks spent the next 45 minutes chasing that fox all over the complex and beyond. Finally, when practice was over, Brooks came back exhausted and said to the coach, “I’m sorry coach, I’ve chased that fox all over and now he is in a culvert drain and I can’t get to him.” Coach just smiled and said, “Good job.” I later explained to my assistant that coach didn’t expect him to actually catch the fox. He just wanted to know that Brooks was “all in” and would even attempt the absurd to help the team win.
This does not mean you roll over when it comes to advocating for safety and quality. On the contrary, it makes your argument more effective to the decision makers, whose support you need. If they see you have the good of the organization in mind rather than your personal efforts, they are much more likely to support your position. Few people support you when they think it’s getting personal. But you can’t lose with player safety as your highest priority instead of a nice looking field.
Don’t become the “complaining guy,” nobody likes a wet towel. Advance your causes after carefully considering them, and be as factual as possible. Rational, objective arguments beat emotional, subjective ones every time.