As the demand for good quality football surfaces is increasing around the world, so is the number of initiatives to prepare groundsmen for doing so. Sportsfields.info spoke to educators in Spain, the United States and the Netherlands. While their programme differs, they all have a common goal.
While the number of synthetic turf surfaces for football is still growing, natural grass remains the surface of choice. However, maintaining a good quality natural grass surface is challenging at many venues around the world. Grass is a delicate product that requires a thorough understanding and willingness to act according to the grass needs over executing what is stipulated by the installer. “With many new teams and facilities in Major League Soccer, dozens of new jobs have been created during the last few years. That has created a shortage of trained, skilled sports turf managers,” says Jerad Minnick explaining why the Maryland Soccer Foundation established its own turf institute. “SoccerPlex, like so many others, was advertising jobs but literally didn’t get any qualified applicants to consider. It was so bad, that through 2021, only three of eight full-time positions were filled. So instead of repeating the same approach in 2022, we decided to change it up.” Minnick learnt from how John Ledwidge at Leicester City progressed with their Sports Turf Academy. “It changed our luck, as we had over 40 applicants for the Sports Turf Institute’s first apprenticeship class.”
Different countries, different approaches
In Spain, things are no different. Despite the country being viewed as one of the best football playing nations in the world, the infrastructure at grass root level in many urban areas still has a long way to go. “Until recently, there was a great lack of training in the field of sports turf, or the high costs made it only accessible to a few,” Jorge Palma of the Spanish Turfgrass Centre, CENEC explains. “This training is based on my experience of more than 20 years studying and working with turf at international level in major competitions.” CENEC offers an online course. “The training started in Spanish but is now also available in English. The distance learning format makes it easier to reach more places and of course cheaper than travelling or staying in Spain for most students. It is written in a way that is easy to understand for students of all levels and is open to those interested in entering the sector as well as to professionals.”
The Dutch training institute for professionals working in the environmental domain, IPC Groene Ruimte, takes a bit of both. “We prefer having students onsite or even taking them all on excursion, but we do acknowledge that most of our students will be busy in the field. As such, our lectures will be given from early autumn to early spring and some of them might be by means of a video conference. All lectures and study material will be made available through an online portal,” is how Liset van Pinxteren explains the set up of their new course for field managers.
A future for all
The course in the Netherlands expects students to have an entry level understanding of natural grass as well as how to maintain synthetic turf. With one in three football fields in the Netherlands being made of synthetic turf, the country has amongst the highest synthetic turf density in the world. The expectation that people have some knowledge means that the course focuses on people already involved in maintaining natural grass (sports) infrastructure. The courses in Spain and the US, are a bit more liberal. “We targeted three main groups of people for apprentices: former athletes who play(ed) soccer, lacrosse, football; people who are passionate about the environment or interested in environmental management; and people who understand the importance of the playing surface for athlete safety,” Minnick explains. “None of our students have any sports turf maintenance experience. But they all love sports. They all love nature. And they all are interested in learning. 95% of those candidates had no idea that the career field of sports turf management even existed!”
Students from all three institutions will be issued with a certificate. “We’ll hand out a certificate as soon as you pass a test that is part of the course. This is to ensure employers will be able to tender for projects where such skill is required without having to wait many months before the candidate finally graduates,” says Van Pinxteren. Students of CENEC will also be issued with a certificate. “It is a private certificate that has already exceeded a hundred students worldwide. The certificate is valid for life with no subsequent examinations or recertification. However, the work of CENEC has always been to encourage meetings between professionals in the sector and to provide support and information so that the work they do is much more visible,” Palma points out.
Exploring new technologies
While the Spanish certificate doesn’t require official recertification, Palma admits that groundsmen will continuously have to familiarize themselves with new, technical developments. “It’s amazing how technology is advancing when it comes to sports turf. In some ways we can anticipate by looking at the agricultural sector. We must be in continuous training to offer the market the highest level of professionalism. Minnick agrees. “Technology has been and still is a complete game changer. Those who are not willing to use technology soon are going to be obsolete and replaced. SoccerPlex uses technology as well as data to impact every single task, every single day; from playing surface testing and data collection or analysis to the use of robotic paint machine,s to having GPS autosteer on tractors to increase efficiency. Technology is bringing this industry out of the Stone Age and into the analytics age, just as sports science and precision agriculture is doing.” Although some of the biggest producers of sports turf maintenance equipment are of Dutch origin and well-known by most professionals, the IPC Groene Ruimte course doesn’t really address technology or equipment but focusses more on preventative maintenance in addition to improving the management skills of learners. As the European Union is adamant to root out the use of chemicals, the Dutch approach is to prepare green professionals to make use of nature itself.
Sustainability is important
The focus on sustainability also means more focus responding to natural developments or on managing water. The latter is something that is also addressed in the CENEC course. “In the certificate, we make continuous mention of the importance of watering only when necessary and in the required quantities. I think that poor irrigation management is the most common misconception, as it leads many sports facilities to wear out more quickly and to the development of disease and unevenness problems.” Another problem Palma has noticed is the use of inadequate equipment. “There is a large number of sports fields where they try to achieve a high quality turf without using cylinder mowers, or, more importantly, without a significant investment in good tools at all.” Asked about the biggest misconception he comes across, Minnick says: “It is my personal belief that the biggest misconception about field management isn’t really a misconception. In fact, I wish there were more misconceptions about field management. But I find that most of the time, people don’t even know that the job or industry even exists. That is the biggest issue.”
Groundsmen deserve more recognition
Minnick believes that there is a healthy level of appreciation for grounds people in the US. “I think the level of recognition that groundsmen receive is excellent. Can it or should it be more? Yes, of course. But we are in a good place to build up from,” he says. In the Netherlands, the training is the first step towards a bargaining agreement for the industry. Palma believes, there is still a long way to go internationally. “When spectators arrive at a football pitch, they find it all done. Most of them are unaware of the great effort behind every square metre of grass. When I give lectures, I always say that grass is the only crop in the world that we can easily see on TV every day. Can anyone doubt its importance?” Asking the question, is answering it.
FIFA uses the slogan ‘for the love of the game’. Initiatives like in the US, Spain and the Netherlands take this love a step further by educating people about the basics to deliver a perfect game.