I mentioned in my last article that my background is very much sport and fitness based, still is in fact, as I train a few elite cyclists. As I continue to learn the many different aspects of the turfcare industry within my role, I am still finding many similarities between what I have learned from a sporting point of view in the past and what I am learning now.
We perform fitness tests so that we know exactly what we're working with, we do a soil analysis for the same reason. From this, we prescribe tailored programmes. We perform aerobic exercise to improve oxygen intake, a reason as to why we aerate. All of which are practices that can have a detrimental effect on performance if they are not carried out. The similarities stretch much further when we look into anaerobic conditions, micro-organisms, protein breakdown etc. So, when I had the chance to attend a presentation that brought both worlds together, the perfect pint was poured.
The presentation, delivered by David Rennie - Head Physio at Leicester City FC, was based on the findings of a recent study 'Can the natural turf pitch be viewed as a risk factor for injury within Association Football?'. Before we dive into what David discussed and how this relates to pitch performance and you as a Groundsman, let's go back a few years.
I had the luxury of asking our Operations Director, John Richards, ex Wolves and England star, on what his experiences were in relation to different pitch conditions and player performance/injuries. John mentioned that he played on all types of surfaces, from the muddy field known as the Baseball Ground at Derby County to a compacted sand pitch in Lisbon, along with everything else in between; patchy, frozen, dry and rutted pitches and the early synthetic pitches introduced by QPR and Luton Town.
John said that he had no doubt that the harder surfaces posed the biggest threat of injury - twisted knees, ankles, broken legs, and arms in some cases, whilst softer surfaces, although more difficult to play on, particularly the muddy ones, tended to pose more muscular related injuries which were far easier to treat and recover from.
So, what does all this have to do with what David discussed? Interestingly, he began his presentation by saying that pitches, over the last twenty years or so, have increased in hardness. There are many reasons that have led to this change, such as the style of game changing, managers wanting a specific style of play, advances in fitness and player capabilities, mainly due to the advances made within the turfcare industry, and of course, groundspeople.
We now see pitches that have an excellent sward with good quality root systems, binding the sand profile together and making it firmer. A bit different to the surfaces John would have been used to playing on, which had little or no enhancements.
Ground hardness is measured by using a clegg hammer in different locations on a pitch. In general, if the pitch is too soft, it can be rolled; if too hard, solid tining would be in order. A very important aspect to not only get right, but consistently right, particularly as reported injury rates for elite footballers vary between 1.5 to 35 injuries per 1000h exposure, and one of the proposed contributing factors, along with many others, is the pitch.
On the surface, this isn't all that surprising; a few facts and figures to put this into context. Jamie Vardy at full sprint can cover 9.8m per second (Usain Bolt can cover 12.42m per second - 27.8 miles per hour - wow). In addition to this, investigations have shown that forces of up to 550% body weight can be exerted through joints, such as the knee, when running. Imagine what a 'soft patch' or undulation in the surface could do when a player is in full flow.
Out of the seventy-nine studies used in David's research, only five objectively measured pitch hardness, none reporting a correlation with an increased risk of injury. Interesting - how many times do we hear the pitch being blamed for the cause of injury?
At the top level, we are now seeing pitches being tailored so that they are specific to the manager's style of play so that they maximise energy expenditure. A reason as to why teams appear to 'play different' or struggle to get into a rhythm when playing away?
The truth is that, at present, there isn't compelling evidence that links pitch hardness as a significant extrinsic factor with injuries. Although, with the progressions that are continually being made in the turf industry, a need for further knowledge and new research being undertaken, we will undoubtedly have a better understanding on how the player and pitch interact. But, how does this apply to grassroots level and those that have to make do with all sorts of surfaces?
I was speaking to one of my friends, a level 6 referee, to see what his thoughts were on this matter: He mentioned that, as part of the referee course, they are trained to inspect pitch conditions, including hardness. In relation to pitch hardness and injury, he said it was hard to think of an example where the pitch was to blame for the result of an injury as there are many factors to consider.
I asked him for his thoughts on the transition from natural turf to artificial pitches - "definitely a difference". He explained that one team who play all of their home games on an artificial pitch would win the majority of the time as they were clearly more used to the surface than the visiting team. When playing away, although a very good team, they would lose or seemingly struggle to adapt.
In relation to pitch hardness on artificial turf and the risk of injury, he commented; "risk of injury, I would say, is increased too, the ball bounces differently and rolls at a faster pace, making it more difficult to judge the path of the ball. As a result, you can see a lot more 'reaction' turns and twists which cause an increased amount of slips. As good as they are, you can't recreate the feel of the boot gripping into natural turf.
The risk of injury is further increased when on older or 'cheaper' artificial pitches that are wet as a result of poor drainage". He finished by saying that more investment needs to put into natural turf pitches. "It's quite simple really, without a stage, there is no theatre".
I have seen, over the past few weeks that two 3G pitches have been opened, each costing in the region of £640,000. Yes, they are multi-purpose, floodlit etc., but imagine what that money could have done if it was invested in improving 'x' amount of natural turf pitches. We have already pointed out, in previous articles, that the cost of maintenance for a natural turf pitch is far less than the overall cost of an artificial 3G surface.
This reminded me of what we achieved with the Pitch Renovation tour organised by Campey Turf Care, aimed at improving the quality of grassroots natural turf sports pitches. We shared knowledge and skill, which is exactly what we need to do, through people like David Rennie, as the industry continues to move forward.
Ref: Rennie DJ, et al. Can the natural turf pitch be viewed as a risk factor for injury within Association Football? J Sci Med Sport (2015).