More Than Grass with Alpha Jones, CSFM.

More than Grass with Alpha Jones: Listening is Communicating

One of several satisfying moments in the career of a sports field manager is seeing an amazing play on a field they maintain. The skills athletes display are developed through repetitive drills and hours of practice. The athlete must also have confidence in the playing surface on which they perform. It is this foundation of abilities and assuring surface that promotes confidence to perform and stretch beyond their base skills. Like the athlete, today’s sports field management (SFM) professionals and tomorrow’s leaders require foundational skills that will provide confidence to extend beyond their expertise.

For an effective leader or role player, communication is vital in building relationships and gaining trust. When it is absent, misinterpretation, confusion and doubt can result. One might assume that the art of speaking is the most important communication skill of a leader, but it’s not. For today’s crew members and tomorrow’s leaders, the most significant communication skill to master is the ability to listen. Listening is an easy skill to use and essential to master.

The sports field, no matter the size or level of play, has become, and will progressively be, a stage and backdrop for non-sport, revenue-generating events. Today’s SFM professionals have many different individuals with which to interact when developing their field management plans. This diverse group of personalities includes the coaching staff of both teams using the field, their organization’s executive management team, the events coordinator, community relations coordinator and marketing team, to name a few. If that is not enough to take in, there are the voices within their own department, as well as public opinion. The input from each of these can be overwhelming and leaves the field crew leader deliberating over whose needs are most important.

The first responsibility of the SFM professional is to provide a safe, playable and aesthetically pleasing playing surface and facility. Job priority number two is to defend the field against anything that lowers or disrupts the integrity of the field (this includes field-use requests). Your success in doing this depends on hearing what others are asking. Their words can give insight to the true request and why it is important to that department or organization. The challenge for SFM professionals is these requests often differ or go outside of what is deemed as proper or preferred field use. Consider this approach to the conversations around field-use requests and other talks.

First, be quick to listen and slow to speak. Hesitate to respond immediately to what has been said. Avoid distractions, and ask to move the discussion to a place where both parties can hear. Switch notifications to vibrate or off, and set your phone to the side. Give your attention and focus to the speaker and what they have to say. Do not tense up or mentally block out the remainder of a conversation if a request or suggested idea differs with you or your way of thinking. Keep an open mind. Sometimes field-use requests seem to disregard or not take into consideration the hard work, time and resources needed to achieve and maintain the integrity of the field. Hear the full idea the user has, and understand the message; it may be different than it sounds.

Second, conduct this simple test: Can you, the listener, now explain the “what and why” of the request back to the requestor? If you can, respond thoughtfully. Once you have heard their ask and listened to the explanation of its importance, summarize in your words what you heard them say. Be solutions-minded with the idea of accommodating both parties with a version of what they want. You can accomplish two things here. You confirm to the speaker that you heard them, and you create a connection that could build trust. Trust is key to successful communication.

Third, as you practice listening, hear the language or lingo the speaker uses. SFM professionals have a reputation for speaking grass lingo when talking with others and find themselves having to stop mid-sentence to explain what they just described. For an events coordinator, band director or coach, their passion for what they do drives their requests for field use and their words. Learn and use their terminology, create a common language that bridges the gap of understanding and a familiarity that should decrease tension around difficult topics. Ask questions that seek to gather information. Conversations in their terms will show an interest in what they do, and a willingness to work together.

Alpha Jones, CSFM, is director of field operations for the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, MiLB affiliate of the Houston Astros. He also serves on the SFMA Board of Directors as professional facilities director.