Athletes measure themselves by performance. Sometimes, they will trade safety for performance, or at least a perception of better performance.

For example, we see footballers forgoing knee and hip pads and basically wearing shorts. I hated having my ankles taped in high school football, I felt I lost speed and mobility, but it was mandatory. I guess the feeling is that you don’t get to the top without taking a few risks. In our world of sports field management, performance means playability and the field’s capacity to allow play at the highest level for any given sport.

While the field manager’s priority is safety first along with playability and appearance, many athletes, coaches, fans and TV analysts may see it as the reverse. As they often focus on appearance and playability, field managers also see field safety. If a player slips, the playing surface quality is usually questioned first. Yet that very slip may have been in response to athlete error in not keeping enough weight over their feet (e.g. cutting off the inside foot). More importantly, that slip may have acted as a kinetic circuit breaker and released just enough energy to prevent an injury to the player; it’s impossible to tell with certainty. Perhaps the field was unduly loose. It certainly seems to reason that a quick release of energy – like a divot or righteous slip – puts the athlete at lower risk for certain injury types. But does that same slip elevate risks for other types of injuries?

For example, a few years ago researchers began to understand the importance of athletes wearing the proper fit and type of shoes. But if players and everyone else seek performance (playability) first, doesn’t it stand to reason that even if informed on the relative injury risks associated with certain shoe types, some athletes may choose the riskier shoes for better performance?

Those of us in sports field management may be the only people in the game who understand that the safest fields may not always play to the highest level. When it comes to footing (traction and grip), would players always choose the “stickier” surface, even if it were shown to significantly elevate injury risk?

Add in human variability and finding that indefinable balance between field safety and playability becomes even more opaque. The human animal evolved throughout the years of running, cutting, jumping and landing on natural ground of great variability. As we hunted, ran from predators and waged war, it was never on surfaces of perfect traction and grip. I don’t think our bodies were designed for high performance on perfect ground. Maybe natural selection favored the human body to evolve into a balance between performance and resistance to injury. So as we scientifically pursue the many aspects of the athlete/surface interaction, we have to include the human kinesiology aspects of it, maybe as much as the surface itself. They seem to go together.

The reality is that we find a balance between risks and performance in all walks of life, including our sports surfaces. We could eliminate thousands of deaths and injuries if we all gave up automobiles. But we don’t. We accept some level of risk for “performance” in transportation. So, if field safety always trumps performance (and appearance), wouldn’t we play sports on surfaces made of soft and slippery air mattresses? Of course we don’t, but that doesn’t eliminate our charge in the sports field industry to continue working to create the safest field possible within the range of acceptable performance, however murky that overlap might be. Moreover, there is a need to better educate the rest of the sporting world about some of this.

There are currently several important university research projects that seek to make the foggy world of sports field safety and performance more clear. It’s complex and answers don’t show themselves quickly, but they are beginning to emerge.

Meanwhile, sports field managers continue to aim field prep at a blurry, moving target zone between field safety and field performance and hope it is acceptable.