Proper communication with athletes
Photo provided by Chase Straw, Ph.D.

The Importance of Proper Communication

By John Kmitta

As a sports field manager, communicating with others is one aspect of the job that might get overlooked. However, it is of vital importance – especially during the challenges we currently face – to properly communicate with coaches, administration, athletes, parents, the community, as well as your own straff/crew.

“For athletic fields to be successful at a high level, you have to have relationships and the ability to communicate at all levels,” said Amy Fouty, CSFM, general manager, Paradise Coast Sports Complex, Naples, Fla. “It’s a skill that they don’t really teach you in school – the interpersonal skills that you really need to develop your relationships. The way you communicate to each of those – coaches, admin, athletes, parents, the community – can be a different style.”

Fouty added that sports field managers need to communicate to the level of understanding of the person or groups with whom they are communicating. Do not talk over their heads, but also do not talk in a way that is beneath their level of understanding. 

According to Chase Straw, Ph.D., assistant professor, turfgrass management and physiology, Texas A&M University, it is important to identify any areas where there is a lack of communication or where stakeholders don’t fully understand the situation so that everybody is on the same page, knows everybody’s role and can find common ground.

“The overarching thing about communication is to make sure you understand other people’s perspectives, because, as a sports field manager, your perspective on the way the field should be used is going to be different from those who use your field,” said Straw. “The perspective of someone who might own or manage the facility will be different from how the coach wants to use the field, and that’s going to be different from the parents or the players. So, everybody is going to have different opinions, and it’s really about understanding everybody’s opinion, reaching a common goal, and coming up with a plan from that.”

According to Straw, the majority of people who use a field don’t understand what it takes to maintain it.

“A big barrier is just having an understanding of what goes into general maintenance practices,” said Straw. “There is a lack of education. Whenever players go out and do ladder drills all in one spot, and you get these beat-up areas on the field, they are doing it partially because they don’t understand that it is destroying the field and it’s going to be tough for the field to recover. If the sports field manager doesn’t say anything, the athlete isn’t going to know any better.”

Communicating with coaches

Coaches, in many cases, may have a better understanding of what you are doing as a sports field manager than, perhaps, athletes, parents or the general public. But proper communication with coaches is still vital to ensure you are on the same page.

“When you communicate with coaches, the conversation is always going to be playability,” said Fouty. “You ask what they think about it first. Anytime I have had a new coach to work with…the first thing I would ask them is, ‘What type of playing style – what type of offensive and defensive scheme – do you like to run?’ And, from a safety standpoint, what has been their experience with grass fields, just to understand their perspective and background. Some of them have played on some really great grass fields, some of them have played on some really bad grass fields. They are never shy of words to tell you all about that.”

“A lot of times, the coach is going to do whatever they want to do anyway,” said Straw. “In that situation, as a sports field manager, you need to really outline the consequences of what they are doing and the impact of field quality on player safety to them before they do it.”

If the coach continues to do what they want, to the detriment of the field and player safety, Straw recommends reaching out to ownership or administration to let them know that you want to accommodate the coach but, as a result, field quality is going to diminish.

“I think being upfront about what is going to happen to the field if the team does something that is going to be destructive – before it happens – is going to set you up for success to justify doing something differently to prevent it from happening down the road,” Straw added.

“Every time I would have a conversation with coaches, it would always be in the realm of safety, as well as playability, for the different positions to execute what they are trying to execute,” said Fouty. “That always seemed to be a very productive way to have a conversation and all get on the same page. Then you are aligning your goals. They don’t care about the science of growing grass. Just like we don’t want to dive into the game plan for the tight ends and every single play they are going to run. It’s making a connection and being around so that they see you. To be part of the team, you’ve got to be around.”

Communicating in a COVID-19 world

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, proper communication has become even more important as sports field managers have had to manage COVID-19 messaging and information related to field use, as well as internal communication and messaging within the organization.

“No matter who you are talking to, you have to have a unified message,” said Fouty. “Whether you are talking to a coach, the administration, parents, athletes, the community, news outlets, businesses in the community – there should be talking points created for the entire organization to use in terms of communicating safety, the protocols you have in place, and why you have them in place.”

According to Fouty, you have to start with one singular message about safety and that you are looking out for the best interest of the athlete.

“You all have to sit down in a room at a table and come up with what that [message] looks like, and then everybody has to agree on the message and provide the same message,” she said. “A unified message is the most critical thing so that you can communicate properly.”

Chrissie Segars, Ph.D., assistant professor/extension turfgrass specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, said that many sports field managers with whom she has spoken in recent months have had guidelines in place regarding field closures, and thought they were on the same page with their supervisors or administration, only to find out at the last minute about cancelled games or field closures – after they already put a lot of work into readying the field. 

“Sometimes it’s just the way it is – field managers don’t know until the public knows,” she said. “But being as open and honest as possible about it is really important.”

Straw added that it is also important to be as open as possible with your staff – all of the time (not just with regard to COVID-19 messaging). 

“There are a lot of situations where you are in kind of hurry-up-and-wait mode – such as rain delays,” he said. “Your staff can become really disgruntled if they don’t know what’s going on. So just keep everybody in the loop. One of the big things in communicating with your staff is always be approachable. Everybody is busy, but I always want people to know that they can come talk to me at any time. 

“With COVID, especially, people are having a lot of personal situations that aren’t only work-related situations,” Straw continued. “So now is a more important time than ever to be approachable and even ask your staff if they are doing okay – personally and work related. Even if it’s as simple as letting them know that you don’t know what’s going on, that’s at least telling them something and keeping them on the same page as you.”

Segars added that it is also important to communicate about personal health and wellbeing. 

“I think that physical and mental health are becoming topics people feel more comfortable talking about,” she said. “We are already in a tough industry, and adding on the pandemic is very stressful. It’s important to be honest with yourself on how you’re feeling. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s a bad time, so it’s important to communicate how you are feeling both physically and mentally.”

When communicating with staff regarding COVID-19 messaging, Fouty added that it’s important to let your staff know that the safety measures being put in place are as much for them as they are for the people who are coming to the complex.

“My concern is always the safety and wellbeing of the staff, and that we have to be a good example, because people will watch what we are doing or take pictures of anything you’re not doing right,” said Fouty. “When we talk about protocols as a staff, we talk about being an example of those protocols and having a unified message.”

Proper communication as a sports field manager
Photo by Laura Miller, County Extension Agent Tarrant County (Texas). Photo provided by Chrissie Segars, Ph.D.

Becoming part of the conversation

Fouty, Straw and Segars all agree that having a unified message within an organization involves becoming a part of the conversation, which, as a sports field manager, is not always easy. 

“I think it depends on the organization and situation by situation,” said Segars. “I’ve talked to plenty of field managers who have great relationships with their coaches and administration. There are others who don’t get to be a part of that conversation until the last minute. Trying to develop those relationships as much as possible is really important. Be open and honest about what you need as a field manager, and make yourself available.”

Straw, sharing advice he received from Weston Appelfeller, CSFM (Austin FC), added, “Have a plan. Have a management plan. Know what kind of equipment you need. Know what kind of people you need. Have a general idea of your routine and how you will handle your management. And don’t just keep that internal. Articulate it to people who will listen. If they don’t listen, try to set something up so that they will listen.”

Straw added that it is important to let upper administration know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and that you need to be aware of any changes that might impact your plan. If you already have a plan laid out for how you manage your field, then, if a wrench gets thrown into the plan, upper administration can let you know so you can adjust your plan accordingly. 

“There’s a reason for everything we do,” said Straw. “So you need to be able to clearly justify that.”

Segars added that it is important to not only being able to justify your actions by telling your administrators or management, but also by keeping proper records of what you have been doing so that you have something to fall back on. 

Said Fouty, “I think it’s important to be as good a listener, if not a better listener, when you are talking to people – picking up on what their needs are and how the role of the sports field manager can meet those needs. I think that’s really important, and a lot of people haven’t honed in on that skill.”

Fouty advises taking extra courses, reading books about leadership and communication, and learning how different people communicate. 

“And then being an example is one of the most useful things in the organization,” said Fouty. “Be a good listener. Be a good leader and be a good follower as well. The sports field manager isn’t the top decision-maker in any organization that I know of, so it’s good to have both skillsets and really be on board with what needs to be done. They are much more likely to help you later when you need it.” 

John Kmitta is associate publisher and editorial brand director of SportsField Management magazine.