Erwin Beltman was the head groundsman for stadium De Kuip in the Netherlands between 2013 and 2022. In that period, the field was elected voted the best stadium field in the Dutch Eredivisie eight times in a row. These days, he works as a consultant and shares his experiences about achieving good turf pitches on Sportsfields.info. Today he discusses how to deal with the personal stress groundsman and greenkeepers can possibly experience.
I love my job and will tell anybody willing to listen that being a groundsman or greenkeeper is the best job in the world. At the same time, I don’t deny or shy away from the fact that it is underestimated, undervalued and largely not recognised by most stakeholders benefitting from our sacrifices and efforts. The stresses and pressure we experience, particularly at this time of the season, can be enormous, and I really feel for my fellow groundsmen and greenkeepers out there whose beneficiaries are currently involved in battles for titles or relegations. What is at stake is massive and consequences can be dire. Irrespective of how teams or players have performed earlier this season, suddenly everything comes down to the quality of the surface during the one or two finale games they’ll play at home. To me that is very unfair. This, at a time of the year when the grass is still recuperating from winter and what it had to endure during that period. The pressure this piles on the shoulders of the grounds crew is enormous, and, if not managed timeously or correctly, can be so damaging that people will be scarred for life or even worse. That’s something nobody deserves but also something our market can ill afford. The demand for skilled people in our industry is huge.
Unfortunately, we have to accept that very few outsiders understand what our job entails, what we do and how unrewarding our job is. We put a lot of time and effort into it, just to see how the fruits of our labour are destroyed within minutes. At least greenkeepers have the benefit of enjoying their results, as their greens and fairways will show these much longer. We are also often being frowned upon, particularly at this time of the year when we remove grass when it is in its prime. We’ll be forced to go to great lengths to explain that it will be to their benefit to ensure another quality surface later in the year.
Most of the time we are being taken for granted, and, as long as things go well, go largely unnoticed. I recall a story of somebody in our industry who received a personalised cake from the golf club that had him employed in celebration of a job anniversary. Unfortunately, they had somebody else’s face printed on it. In all the years he had been around, nobody had bothered to establish who he was!
Good support structure essential
In the 31 years I have been employed in this industry, I have learnt the importance of a good support structure. At stadium De Kuip, I had a manager who would filter any request by the sales department, eager to generate revenue by hosting an event inside the stadium bowl. Personally, I made sure I had a good working relationship with the players and coach over and above the monthly meetings we held to establish how we could support them as a grounds crew. I also always made sure everybody understood both the short-term and long-term consequences of anything they requested regarding the surface.
I have been blessed with the unconditional support of my family. My wife and kids understand how much I love my job and they never really made an issue of it when I was absent over the weekend, left very early or arrived home late. They never complained during the nine years I was employed at Stadium De Kuip, about us remaining in the country during the summer holidays only because I wanted to be within driving distance in case the stadium pitch required my immediate attention. I’ve tried to make up by making an effort to always join my kids on school trips which would take place during the week. And as soon as the league had commenced, my wife and I would go for a holiday overseas. In that week, my cell phone would be locked away for most of the day except for 30 minutes in the evenings which I could use to check for any emergency.
Those who know me well will know that it wasn’t easy for me not to be able to communicate immediately. I love talking and chatting to people, something that has also been my saviour. I believe that our voice is our strength. Chatting or socialising allows you to organise your mind, relieve your stresses and to reflect. Some people are born talkers, others need some encouragement. I always made sure I was aware of what was bothering those on my team, including, where appropriate, issues of a more private or personal nature. The effort our job takes and the odd hours and days we work can strain those around us. This needs to be managed, and anybody experiencing this as challenging deserves our support and should be pushed to make improvements.
Most employers have a dedicated HR person or confidant, while clubs, particularly the professional ones, have somebody tasked with the mental wellbeing of the players. Don’t be shy to reach out to these people when you feel ‘lonely’ or ‘stuck.’ Groundsmen or greenkeepers are essential in their endeavours. I have no doubt that they will be willing to listen and can guide you to a route forward.
I also advise people to take up a hobby, irrespective of how much you love your employer, club or job. We need something that, every so often, takes away our immediate focus. The resulting peace of mind will be beneficial to our minds and body.
All this, and much more, will certainly be addressed during the European Mental Health Week that will take place from 22-28 May.
Put technology to your benefit
These days, there is an abundance of technology available to assist us in or speed up our work, improve the final result or reduce the need for precious resources. Put it to good use but be selective in how you will allow it to rule you. While remote controls, remote access or apps will enable you to watch the pitch, control the irrigation system, understand the soil conditions or temperatures, to name a few, this also means you can (be expected to) be ‘switched on’ 24/7, even when you take a day off, are away to attend a conference or meeting or even when you are on a holiday. See to it that, parallel to embracing (smart) technology, you’ll reconsider your time management, and, where necessary, make adjustments.
In addition to investing in systems, technologies or processes that will make your immediate life or result easier, please don’t forget to invest in your reporting. The better your feedback or proof to substantiate your claims or explanation, the less likely it will be that you’ll be overruled or pushed to do something that goes against the grain.
To clubs and employers
To the coaches and players who will soon receive a trophy, as well as club managers, stadium owners or venue managers who can report a profit: congratulations! Well done!! Your campaign has paid off. But please don’t forget all the unsung heroes and ‘lubricators’ in the back offices who usually operate in the shadows, yet also contributed to make it work and to keep processes going – from the people in the wash room to the (venue) cleaners, those in the catering rooms, and, yes, of course: the grounds crew. Without their effort and input and the support from their families at home, the picture could have been completely different. When you employ people to, rightfully, go to great lengths to host and accommodate WAGS, former players and sponsors, I am sure they can come up with something to acknowledge these unsung heroes too.
To employers and HR professionals: in times where it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract or satisfy professionals, here are some suggestions you can ponder. Groundsmen and greenkeepers are passionate about their job. They are dealing with nature, including its beautiful but also erratic behaviour. At times, they will be forced to work day and night to achieve the result desired. Personally, I have greatly benefited from having a company vehicle, although a fuel card can do wonders if the KPI is to deliver a perfect pitch irrespective of what that will take. I was also blessed with not being restricted in acquiring or accessing tools or the external specialist consultants available.
To my fellow groundsmen and greenkeepers: I wish you all the best in the few weeks to come. Enjoy the success achieved by the club or your employer or learn from things that haven’t worked out. If you feel the pressure mounting, please look around for support. You know very well that achieving a good grass surface will require teamwork, and, every so often, additional support.
Erwin Beltman is a former groundsman of Stadium De Kuip in Rotterdam. Between 2013 and 2022, the stadium field was voted the best stadium field in the Dutch Eredivisie eight times in a row. Today, he is director of Master in Grass and consults and advises fellow groundsmen.
The views or information he shares in his articles are not necessarily the views of the publisher
In June I will discuss the funds Dutch groundsmen receive from the league and these could be allocated.