Published on
June 13, 2021 10:50:00 AM PDT June 13, 2021 10:50:00 AM PDTth, June 13, 2021 10:50:00 AM PDT

Tips From The Pros

Ross Kurcab is a Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) and a professional sports field consultant with 30 years’ experience
as a head turf manager in professional football. He graduated from Colorado State University’s Turfgrass Management program
and now operates and owns Championship Sports Turf Systems.


Even before the pandemic the issues of work-place stress, work-life balance and burnout were some of the top concerns in the sports field manager’s craft. Not unrelated is the short supply of young people entering university programs and the industry in general, and it’s understandable to a certain extent. I once had an assistant field manager of mine interview for a field manager’s job at a major stadium and the first question in the interview was “Are you OK with averaging over 80 hours/week year round?”

While this kind of organizational culture is not the norm it has only grown from the economic pressures of a worldwide pandemic. There are backlogs of games to catch up on, pent up demand and even sports being played out of season. Many municipal and private sector budgets were frozen for a part of or all of fiscal year 2021. As youth and amateur sports continue coming back on line, now is a good time to create lasting change and a healthy sense of balance in the sports field management workplace and a better sense of well-being for the sports field manager.

You can find any number of free resources to educate yourself on the issue, it’s not like we don’t know what to do. Do a simple online search for “workplace well-being” and you will see plenty of scholarly work. Books and books have been written on the subject, where it’ll be easy to figure out what to do; we just don’t know how to do it in a corporate culture that doesn’t really support it.

All the mental health tools in the world cannot work until we create an environment for them to work. I believe this is where workplace fun comes into play.

When you work so many weekends and holidays you forget the meaning of the words, you lose yourself in work. The only way out seems to be more work. Part of it is just the nature of the business. Big sporting events tend to happen on weekends and holidays.

To say I was the Broncos field manager is only part of the story. Like many professional field managers at large stadiums, I was also the field manager for many athletes, teams and leagues. I prepared playing surfaces for the Colorado Rapids (MLS), Denver Outlaws (MLL) as well as high school and collegiate sports of all kinds. Add in a host of private and for-hire corporate events in the summer’s “Silly Season” as we called it, could burn out any turf team in a few short months.

International World Cup Qualifier. These elite athletes are counting on their field manager.

Many sports field managers have a version of what we called “Mow-blow-go Friday’s”. It’s the end of the week’s special events and the playing field is prepared and roped off. Let’s pare it down the bare essentials and mow the field, blow off the equipment and approaches and go…home. Or better yet, go have some fun together as a turf team. Go play 9 holes of golf or maybe go to a matinee together and just have some fun, get away from work. The weekend’s game grind will be there when you get back and this simple but powerful idea of fun at work begins to grow.

Beyond “Casual Fridays”

Rigid corporate culture does not make much space for fun and even looks down on your need for a balanced work-life experience. If you need training for your job, if you want to learn time management and raising productivity, how to manage employees, or anything like that, you can find any number of resources from your employer, or from self-help books on business and podcasts of all kinds on how to get more done with less. But where is the training that keeps the employer/employee relationship healthy and balanced? Does your employer even see it as a relationship? Do you?

The traditional model where weekends were designed to rest, recharge and have time for family, friends and other loved ones doesn’t really work in sports field management. Middle management is where many sports field managers find their position in the organization, a place rampant with burnout and mental health issues in modern company structures. It’s no wonder this issue of burnout, work related stress and mental well-being has become an important issue in our industry because it has become an important issue for everyone in every industry.

Abe Picasso feeling the heat of the summer silly season.

You can easily find all sorts of credible resources online for managing time, delegating authority, developing positive attitudes and avoiding burnout at work, so I won’t duplicate it here. What I don’t see is enough emphasis on the power of fun with work. Fun isn’t being able to wear jeans on Fridays. Fun is an environment that promotes creativity, team-work, and yes - productivity.

Simply put, fun is joy, the antidote to burnout and stress. Fun is also good business. Perhaps the great baseball manager Tommy Lasorda said it best when asked about why he was maybe the last manager in MLB to let players bring their golf clubs on road trips. “Happy cows make better milk.”

Fun is an environment, not an activity or policy.

In a scientific and informational industry like sports field management, learning is the engine that drives the career boat. Learning adds yearning, or purpose to our work. We learn in two basic ways, formally and informally. Formal learning looks like on-the-job training programs and attending seminars and conferences. But most of what we learn and need to learn is gained informally through peer-to-peer interactions on the job. You may be the highly experienced leader of your team but they will always learn more from each other than from you. Research suggests that fun at work promotes informal learning, where most of our on-the-job learning takes place. Formal, classroom learning only goes so far and workplace fun creates an environment better suited to employees learning informally from their peers. And if you want to earn, and you don’t want to burn, you’ve got to learn.

It’s not so important what is done for fun, it is the environment created where fun is not only accepted, it is promoted.

Having fun as a team improves creative solutions.

When team members are having some fun together they are less likely to worry about making mistakes or looking a bit silly because their idea didn’t work. They may be more open to trying new ways of doing things. Add in a small but formal reward for good ideas and you’ll see productivity and team well-being grow and grow with use. Once in a while, when looking for a creative solution to a difficult problem, try having a “stupid idea session”, a fun game where no idea or way of thinking is too stupid or far out, just let the imagination go wild. You’ll be surprised what great ideas come from this team thought exercise.

Having fun with team-peers builds cohesion and bonds. Fun builds a team where people get to know each other a little better and are more likely to help each other out.

A mundane task like picking Poa annua can become a fun exchange of ideas with a little background music and a friendly competition to see who can collect the most.

Humor helps you get through the grinds.

Research also suggests that humor may help with work persistence, or the ability to push through a grind and stay on point. We used to have “Dumb-joke Tuesdays” on my turf team. Doing any mundane task is a great time for dumb jokes, just keep them respectable and fun. A horse walks into a bar. Bartender says “Why the long face?”

It’s a pink pin party and you are invited!

After removing our radiant field covers from the field, we would have hundreds of pink anchoring pins to organize. Just throwing them into a bucket creates a tangled mess and a major pain when you next deploy the covers. Organizing the pins into small bunches and rubber-banding them would take one person two hours, I’d guess. I wouldn’t know because we got the whole crew involved, sitting in a circle in the shop on upside-down buckets just socializing as we did this mundane task. Maybe we hacked on each other a bit about the game of “Around the World” we just played at morning break. It soon involves some friendly banter with each other about how we are organizing the pin bundles. There becomes this friendly competition of ideas based in the spirit of play. Before you know it, we have our tarp anchoring system dialed-in like never before and spend far fewer person-hours doing it.

Have some friendly competitive games.

Does your breakroom look as boring as an office at the Department of Motor Vehicles? Get a few games going. How about a board game like chess that can be played during breaks and left to be continued or maybe a way to play digital games on the TV using our phones. Maybe you have room to shoot some hoops in the shop and create your own games with it.

Important note. Workplace games must be safe. You have to draw the line against any games that would risk physical injury. We might shoot some hoops but I would never allow playing basketball against each other.

If you are going to live at the stadium, make it more homely.

During long shifts and grinds, nothing keeps morale high like food. I used to go grocery shopping for my turf team all the time. I took my full-timers out or bought them lunch a lot. Instead of the turf team all driving around looking for fast food and stressing for time during our lunch breaks, we sat together as a team and had a lot of fun. Invite people from other departments and your team will see how their mission fits into a larger purpose.

A quiet place to catch a nap or even some sleep is an essential for these kinds of long shifts, hours weeks and months. Maybe keep a few inflatable mattresses around for the overnight grinds. You probably have some comfortable furniture and a nice TV at home so why not at your second home as well? Do you have nice lockers for each of your staff? How about a full bathroom with a shower and gender-appropriate facilities like this?

Have some off-site fun.

Socializing away from work is a critical part of building a champion sports field team. It doesn’t have to be often but it should be free to attend if you like, there will be food and fun. My treat as your team leader that gets paid the most.

In summary.

Work-life balance and mental well-being likely doesn’t come as a policy from your employer, it comes naturally when humans organize in a relaxed environment which balances the challenges and purpose that make it all juicy. You will be met with some resistance with such an approach and it’s very important that you set the right tone. We take our jobs and our craft very seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously. Having fun with and at work helps us strike this critical balance where we spend much of our lives. The added productivity gains help us create the needed perspective and space in our non-work lives as well. Today’s dominant work narrative is to produce first, then you will find happiness fulfillment and good pay. I think this is backwards. Find happiness first and productivity benefits will surely follow. Happy cows do indeed make better milk, Tommy!

Posted June 17, 2021