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Sports Turf Managers Tackle Unique COVID-19 Challenges

Top 3 Takeaways from this Article:

  • Utilize all the tools at your disposal to keep your crew on the same page, like video conferencing, texting and email
  • Make the most of down time or lack of play by tackling large projects or training opportunities
  • Find ways to help non-essential or part time employees feel like they are still part of the team

Sports turf professionals faced a big challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic as everything ground to a halt on their fields and behind the scenes at facilities nationwide.

“The lack of freedom of movement and interaction in and around the complexes has probably had the biggest impact on my daily work life,” said Daniel Thomas, Sports Turf Manager of the Baltimore Orioles Spring Training Complex.

“In my position,” Thomas added, “I interact with many people to efficiently perform my job. With the restrictions due to the pandemic, that has made it more difficult each day to get all the information without the in-person contact.”

Thomas said that the Baltimore Orioles took every possible step to provide a safe working environment for their staff during the pandemic. Many sports organizations did the same. The NFL developed a tier system designed to keep employees safe. However, it resulted in limited time for some sports turf staff to properly manage their fields.

For example, the Los Angeles Rams decided “tier 3 employees weren’t allowed to be around players or in the same building as players during the season,” said Chris Hawes, Grounds Manager for the Rams.

How did sports turf managers respond to these unique challenges? As normal play gets underway in some parts of the country, they’re starting to review what worked and didn’t work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with continuing to maintain safe working environments, here are four tips from sports field pros to help you manage your crew as you navigate the return to play.

Take Advantage of the Time Out

“For the first time in my career, we had the time to really get after some cultural practices,” said Brad Keith, Sports Field Manager of the City of DeLand, FL. “During our canceled NCAA season, we were able to remove some high edges, run deep aerification, aggressively verti-cut, repair numerous irrigation heads and valves.” He added, “Basically, we found ourselves catching up on many concerning issues and that really helped us as we entered the 2021 season.”

“Our sports fields had a good rest for the majority of 2020,” said Ben Polimer, Fields and Grounds Coordinator for the City of Weston, MA. “Some of our most heavily used fields are now in the best shape in my five years in Weston.”

Others said their fields are responding similarly. “The fields responded well to the early decreased activity and ultimately led to better plant health as activity resumed,” said Kevin Denney, Superintendent of the Chicago White Sox fields at Camelback Ranch, AZ.

Utilize Technology

Many sports turf managers found themselves turning to technology to stay connected with their teams, coworkers and other managers during the pandemic.

“Information sharing is critical, so it’s taken some time to figure out how to get all the information without the ability to see people,” Thomas said. By using technology to share information, he said they were able to focus on keeping their crews on the same page.

“With less in-person contact, we have relied on more text messages, emails and the new normal of video conferencing,” Thomas said.

Take Care of Your Crew

In some cases, there were sports field crews that were able to continue working together through the pandemic. But other team members that were part-time or considered non-essential wound up on the sidelines.

When Hawes realized part of his crew at SoFi Stadium would be Tier 3 employees, he found ways to make sure they were taken care of.

“We tried to provide them their own space,” he said, “since we don’t have the room on our site for an actual grounds shop like most facilities. We had some break tents and restrooms for them and adapted their schedule so they were only here during critical times.”

Maintaining the team dynamic through the pandemic will mean an easier transition once sports return to their regular schedules.

Find the Silver Lining

Managers are also finding that staying positive as they lead their teams in spite of the difficulties can also help sports turf crews, both on and off the field.

“I think the crew and I grew closer,” Keith said about his pandemic experience. “We looked out for each other and checked up on how things were away from the ballpark.”

Denney said, “I believe everyone gained perspective and that created a stronger team. Overall, the biggest positive was the value that each member of the organization contributed.”

And sports turf mangers are finding the silver lining in their day-to-day lives too.

Denney added, “Personally, I was able to retrain myself, focusing on the importance of being healthy and maintaining a good work balance. Getting back to the basics of my position showed areas that we could be more efficient and areas that needed extra attention.”

“Sometimes in this line of work,” Keith said, “the job becomes all encompassing. Finding balance was and is a lesson we will continue to work on.”

TAGS: Field Management, Athletic Fields, Athletic Turf, Sports Turf, Sports Fields, Leadership, Problem Solving