Tournament field preparation for parks and rec facilities

By Neil Cathey, CSFM

Tournaments or larger events can be intimidating to think about and overwhelm you and your staff if you are not properly prepared. As a parks superintendent in northeast Utah, my team and I have had the great opportunity to host several important tournaments including Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth Pacific Regionals, and the largest annual adult softball tournament in Utah. We were able to make our facilities shine for these events because we took the approach that tournament preparation was a yearlong endeavor and not a one-week crash course. The most important consideration when tasked with holding a large event at your facilities is not to panic. This is an opportunity to showcase your facility, your community, your staff and yourself.

When you are planning a trip the first thing you do is locate the destination and map out a route to reach your target. Planning for a tournament is very similar with one large exception: map your course in reverse. You first want to set a goal and once that goal is established you need to set all your benchmarks to reach this goal. If you want to accomplish x, y, z you have to plan out and schedule a, b, c.

Inform your staff as soon as possible the event’s dates, the dates of benchmarks leading up to it, and that these dates may be blocked out for vacation. This should go a long way in helping them balance their home and work lives and allow for optimal buy in. Make sure that user groups and your higher ups are also well informed and have bought in. Remember that your facilities are there to serve your user groups and this is in all likelihood their tournament and they want it to be as successful as possible. The problem is they know where they want to get to; but they do not know how to get there. The same thing can often be said about your higher ups, particularly your board members. While they may be great people who want only the best for your community and facilities, never forget that you are the expert and you were hired to lead. Use this opportunity to work with your decision makers and educate them. Many times these tournaments are decided upon after your budget has been set. Be prepared to show your board the economic impact this event will have to your community and justify the extra funds needed to make it a success.

Setting your cultural calendar for the year will have the largest effect on your event’s success. Do as much as you possibly can; this event may be the excuse you needed to get things done that you previously did not have means to do. Ask for more money; if you don’t ask the answer is always “no.” Beg, borrow, and steal (okay, don’t steal); but maybe the local golf course or school district has a piece of equipment that you can borrow, maybe your vendor can let you demo some equipment or trade use of equipment for advertising at the event. The point is that if you know something needs to be done, find a way to make it happen. Most small communities have an “us against the world” mentality; play to this and make this a community event but be prepared to return the favor. If you still don’t have all the necessary resources then implement the “field within a field” philosophy and do the areas that you can. Below is the cultural calendar that we followed annually:

I like to dethatch my turf in early spring using the spring tines on a groomer. I try to do it shortly after the snow has melted and before mowing begins; removing the dead turf greatly improves color and promotes new growth.

Seeding should be done as much as possible but can be quite expensive. Push for a minimum of twice per year in conjunction with fall and spring aerifications. And any supplemental seeding you can do throughout the year is a plus especially in high traffic areas. I prefer to use a drill seeder as much as possible and we always go two directions. Rates will vary on your climate and turf types, but always go as heavy as you can.

Weed control is an essential component of any turf management program, but can be a relatively easy task by keeping your turf healthy throughout the year. On athletic fields we never used pre-emergence herbicides. I want to have the ability to seed or aerate at any time, and if we are doing everything else as planned weed pressure was never a big deal. Having said that we were not completely immune to weeds and applied post-emergence herbicides in early spring and late fall. If you only have the budget for one application I strongly recommend the fall app over spring.

Aerating throughout the year as much as possible is a must and will yield the most tangible results of any of your cultural practices. Parks and recreation fields are often overused and compaction can become a huge problem. We used a mechanical aerator on our sports turf versus a ground driven unit on general turf. This allows us to be more aggressive while not doing unintentional damage to the turf. With limited applications we worked on 2-inch spacing with the largest tines available for the aerator. Note what direction was used to aerate and vary the direction of the subsequent aeration to provide for optimal results. We always aerated, drug (after ample time for cores to dry), mowed, blew, fertilized, topdressed, re-drug and then irrigated. Your budget will dictate how much of this you are able to accomplish, but at a minimum the cores should be collected or drug in. Ideally I would have liked to remove all the cores and topdressed heavily, but I had neither the time nor resources for either. We would however collect cores from infield turf and stockpile these cores to use as topdressing for seeding operations in high traffic areas.

Topdressing is necessary to prevent thatch and promote a safe and level playing surface. We planned on topdressing twice a year in conjunction with fall and spring aeration using either a compost material of USGA sand at a rate of ¼ to ½ inch. To determine what best suits your needs a soil test and analysis should be performed annually.

Fertilization should be dictated by your soil test. My soil tests were very consistent and my needs did not vary much from year to year. On an average year I would fertilize with my spring and fall aerations with an organic slow release fertilizer. We also did an early June application of an extended release fertilizer. I also spoon feed as many athletic fields each year as budget allows; this program varies based on soil tests, budget and number of events. In addition to our fertilizer applications we focused on other chemical inputs as well.

We applied growth regulators twice a month at the lowest recommended rate supplemented with iron throughout the growing season. I am a huge advocate of growth regulators and this would be the last chemical input I would cut from my budget outside of the three granular fertilizer applications. We also applied a specialized long-term soil surfactant type wetting agent twice per year depending on weather conditions. In our high desert environment in northeast Utah we did not have to apply fungicides but I recommend keeping a broad spectrum curative fungicide on hand just in case.

While it is important to map out these important inputs with all of them leading to the common goal of making your facility shine; you cannot lose focus on the day to day operations that are imperative to your success. Daily, weekly and monthly schedules should be created and distributed to your crew ensuring that everyone is well informed of the processes that are vital to your shared success. All of these schedules should be tailored to your individual facilities and expectations.

We always tried to be on the lookout for ways to save money and time while not sacrificing our end product. We tried to eliminate as much hand watering of skinned areas as possible by both installing skinned area automatic irrigation systems as well as using roller base irrigation heads. This allowed one person to water several fields at once. One person could water seven fields for us at once while handling other tasks such as picking up trash or cleaning restrooms. We rid ourselves of costly puddle pillows and began using memory foam pillows; this saved on average $20 per pillow and performed just as well. Try spending money to save money. For checking irrigation systems we purchased a remote control for $750. Making this a one-person job instead of two paid for itself within a couple of months. Keep good inventory of all supplies eliminating costly downtime and runs to the store.

2 weeks out

You’ve worked hard all year and you are on schedule now it’s crunch time. The last 2 weeks of tournament prep are essential to its success. If any sod needs to be laid it should be done so no later than 10 days before the tournament starts. This allows the sod to root and blend in while providing a safe playing surface. To ensure that the sod matches in color and depth use sod from your own facility and then either replace the nursery area with new sod or seed. Now is also the time for one of your four edgings per year; use a string and paint to guarantee straight and true lines. Set a mowing pattern and begin to “burn” in the lines. Go with something bold and distinct but don’t paint yourself into a corner by trying to imitate something from the MLB All-Star game; remember they have more guys for one field than you may have for all your fields, parks and facilities. Make sure at least two people are comfortable and familiar mowing this pattern in case someone is pulled off for some other task. I recommend mowing yourself before or after everyone else is gone for the day. This will allow you to see every square inch of the field and makes notes of any tweaks that may be necessary.

Rebuild your mounds and homeplate areas. This ensures that they are done each year and that they are perfect for your tournament. Time your micronutrient fertilization program; and boost it if necessary, to provide for optimum color during the tournament. Hopefully you have your fields on a rotating laser-leveling program; if not try and get at least this field or fields done shortly before hand. If the fields you are using are not in this year’s rotation then change the rotation. You only get one chance at a first impression, and you want these tournaments to return to your facility year after year. Be careful when selecting someone to laser level; use only a contractor with proper experience and equipment. This is one case where you definitely get what you pay for.

Check and double-check your inventory. You want the tournament week to be as smooth as possible with no distractions. Make sure you have ample supplies of: infield mix, conditioner, field dry, paint, set of new and extra bases, trash bags, soap, toilet paper, irrigation supplies, etc. Be sure and review your plans with your team (user group, higher ups and crew). You need a firm schedule 2 weeks in advance from your user group so that you can schedule your crew properly. Don’t forget to ask about extra events such as: skill challenges, opening/closing ceremonies and dinners. These are just as important as the games themselves and need to be staffed correctly. Meet with your staff to ensure that everyone is on the same page and fully understands their role for the upcoming events.

Tournament week! Schedule out the entire week for all facilities; not just tournament fields, well in advance so you have no surprises this week. When scheduling your staff employ a “divide and conquer” mentality. Divide them into three equally balanced groups (AM, normal and PM). The AM crew will come in several hours before the first game and is responsible for field prep, trash, restrooms and irrigation. Normal crew will handle all of your regular responsibilities throughout the week at your non-tournament locations. And you PM crew will stay after games are completed to perform field recovery items (mound, homeplate, irrigation, etc.) Be sure that each crew has a leader who is responsible for their team.

During a tournament I completely shut down automatic irrigation practices. You will have enough to worry about this week; the last thing you need is a stuck valve to delay or cancel games. You will still need to irrigate; but make sure someone is manually turning valves on and off, and watching the irrigation system either before games begin or after they end. Be sure to have an inclement weather plan in place and share this information with your team beforehand. This should closely mirror your normal inclement weather plan so most team members should be familiar with it.

Tournaments can bring long hours and stress for everyone involved. To try and curtail this, monitor staff morale and try to stay ahead of any problems that may come up. Lead by example; stay level headed while also showing the importance of event details and deadlines. Stay calm and cool under pressure, your crew will mirror your behavior. Be neat and professional; do not let long hours compromise who you are, and hold your crew to these same standards. Keep your crew, especially crew leaders, informed of everything that is going on. Surprises and change can quickly derail staff morale. Keep a positive attitude and do not waiver to fatigue. Stay visible and work with each crew as much as possible. Rest only when no one is looking; it’s just one week. Keep your crew well fed; do not let them become “hangry.” Supply meals for each crew; either put it in your budget or work with user groups and concessionaires to provide meals.

After the tournament is over try and reward your staff as much as possible. Have a group meal, look for a team building activity such as a softball game and if you can, shoot for a light workweek. Your field most likely needs some rest as well. Look for stressed areas that may need sod or fertilizer; irrigate as much as needed and roll and level your skinned areas.

I believe the most important element in turfgrass management is that every day matters. Of course we all have events, tournaments and inputs that require extra work and effort; but if we manage our facilities properly day to day, those events can be much easier to deal with. Plan everyday like you are going to have a prestigious event at your facility; you never know when you may get one.

Neil Cathey, CSFM, is grounds specialist for SSC: Services for Education. The experiences he describes in this article came from his time as parks superintendent at Uintah Recreation District, Vernal, UT.