Finding balance is challenging in professional sports turf. If you want to produce the highest quality, you're expected to take the pressure that comes with it. Often, that means working unrealistic hours and dedicating your life to your job, usually at the expense of yourself.
Many might find themselves in a place where the pressure is too much, and their mental health starts to suffer, but with a fresh approach, there are other options.
Aaron Winfield has been Head of Grounds at Harrow School for five months when we sat down in early June 2023. Experience taught him early on that a work-life balance is what he wanted, with professional sports and the turf industry a hard place to find it.
Like most, his love of sport drives his passion for the job. Aaron's grandfather looked after their local cricket ground, and he grew up playing at Long Marston Cricket Club in Hertfordshire. That interest led to a degree at Myerscough College and a six-month internship at The Oval, followed by three years at The Grove.
Exposure to these venues cemented Aaron's desire and ability to produce the best, but more importantly it showed him what he liked and disliked about the roles.
"I've been very fortunate working at The Oval; initially, it was for six months, but I've gone back as a volunteer, and that kind of confirmed to me that I enjoy doing it in bits and pieces, but I couldn't do it full-time again," he explained.
"Like the Grove, it is intense, and it's amazing, and I love it to bits, and I love how it makes me feel. It's why I volunteer at tournaments and events. I still have that intensity here, I still have days when I'm drained, but, as a team, we're still producing the same quality, and the work-life balance is there."
"There is expectation here, but also understanding. With the first-team football and rugby pitch and the first-team cricket pitch, I know they are constructed and irrigated, so the pressure is on for them to always look pristine. The other side is that, when they are in use, they expect them to be of good quality."
"The staff always want the pitch playing well, and there are always questions if something is flooded or that sort of thing, but they are also understanding. At the beginning of the year, I can't tell you how many teachers came to see me and said, "I can't believe how tough the start of the season has been, but we understand. And the same goes for cricket. They were so sympathetic at the start of the year, but when you get that sympathy, you have to give it back later in the year now, and I can produce good pitches. I've got to produce good pitches because I have no excuse."
"I love county and international-level cricket prep, and you can do cricket here to the same professional level, but you get that work-life balance, and it's something I would sell to anyone in the industry, especially with the discussions that are now going on about mental health struggles and everything like that."
"You can do everything at a school, but you get that balance. We host professional sports bodies, we've had Man United Ladies, the NFL, AFL and cricket, but I go home at 3:30pm every day."
"I could quite easily stay till 9pm, making it look amazing, but who am I doing that for? Because no one's going to come to me and go, 'Oh, Aaron, that's amazing, you stay till 9pm; here's your reward for that.' No one does it. We leave at 3.30pm, and we do extra hours when we need to, but we leave at 3.30pm because that's when we're scheduled to work, and if we can't do it in that eight-hour day, then it's not doable."
"Others in the industry might say, 'Oh, I stayed till 5pm, or I stayed till 11pm;' who are you doing that for? You're doing it for yourself, but no one's patting you on the back. And then we get upset when people blame us. There is a balance, but we need to look after ourselves."
Finding the balance for himself has been one thing, but as a manager, Aaron has been conscious of finding it for his team too. He gives them responsibility and lets them learn from the experience. Whilst accountability falls to him, he wants his staff to grow at Harrow and take pride in their work.
"Our industry is changing a lot," Aaron begins. "When I started out, you had the old boy who's been at the club, and he was stout. You don't need to go to uni, and you don't need to do this, you don't need your Level 2. It's all experience. And yes, I agree with that in a way. But what happens in the business world, or any other world, is that people go out and get qualified. They don't get real-life experience, but they go into work, and then they build that experience."
"In our industry, people aren't prepared to let go and give other people responsibility because they're worried it will fall back on their head."
"I want people to take responsibility. I want someone to grab the first-team pitch and say, 'I want to do this.' Because our site is so vast, we've got experienced guys who worked in football, and we've got experienced guys who have worked in cricket. If you want to take responsibility for it, come to me and say, and I'll let you do it."
"At the end of the day, I'm still responsible for the agronomy plan and everything like that, but we sit down as a team, and I'll run it past everyone and ask what they think, and we'll develop it that way: but it's a team effort."
"I'm not out there doing everything. They all do it, and I'm there helping and guiding them. So it's their input that has produced it all. I can't sit there and say the first-team football pitch was all me because when was the last time I mowed the first-team football pitch? They've done it all. That's their pride and joy to relish."
"We need to give the younger generation a go. We're losing people in the industry because the qualified people have got annoyed and left. You need to give young people a go because otherwise, people hold onto the job for 40 years, and then the younger ones aren't getting any experience. So you can't moan about it one way and not let it go the other."
Whilst Aaron's team is central to his focus, the quality of the surfaces and the boys he's preparing them for are his main priority. The expectation is that a Harrow student and international sports person should walk onto a pitch of the same quality.
Whether on one of nine cricket squares, 14 football/rugby pitches or the nine-hole golf course, Aaron is aware how important sport is to the boys and the benefits it can have, including for their mental health.
"Sport is fundamental to what we do here, and that's not just the sport itself, but the boys' mental health," Aaron explains. "It's the awareness and benefits of it and getting the boys out of the classroom."
"On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, as well as Wednesday afternoons, they are outside the classroom, and there are fixtures every Saturday. They're not just in the classroom, they're not stuck in a bubble, they're getting out in the world."
"I think when you consider we're in north London, getting outside, especially with the mental health aspect we've spoken about, is really important."
"That's the bit where I have that balance, where I sometimes have to swallow my pride. It might destroy the pitch a bit, but I can get that back at the end of the day. The key is getting the boys outside and playing, and everything we do is for the boys."
"As much as it's for my own gratification that it looks good, everything we do is to give the boys the best experience they can have at the school, and that is the drive to do it. That's a big part of what we do here and quite a fun part of it."