Youth: Grass vs Turf- How Playing Surface Impacts Soccer Safety & Performance
Sep 3, 2019
***This article is part of an educational series for soccer parents and youth players new to soccer***
It doesn’t take a scientific study for one to see and understand the differences between real grass and turf surfaces.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, to support the prevailing opinions about how these surfaces affect player performance. With that said, it’s worth taking a deeper look at the grass versus turf debate, and how it affects soccer performance and more importantly, soccer safety.
Why Many Players Prefer Grass
The biggest names in soccer such as Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Ibrahimovic, Didier Drogba and David Beckham have all refused to play on fake grass- its a preference of many players, both young and old. With that said, there’s more to grass surfaces than just one’s comfort level.
For one, grass allows teams to play matches at a pace that’s ideal for them, unlike turf (more on this later). On a grass surface, players encounter uneven sections, bumps and gradations, allowing them to slow down their pace where necessary. With a more controlled speed, players can focus on their ball control, leading to more accurate passes and shotmaking ability. The ball also has a more natural bounce on grass, making it easier for players to control it once it lands from a long pass.
In terms of safety, grass is generally softer than turf, so falling onto a grass field will feel more cushioned than a fall on artificial turf. Additionally, cleats have an easier time penetrating grass, allowing players to make quick cuts and directional changes without getting stuck in the surface (which could seriously injure one’s joints). Finally, when it comes to sliding, grass is the better surface. The likelihood of sustaining those nasty turf burns is lower on grass because of its softer texture than on artificial turf.
With that said, grass fields can vary significantly in quality, so some fields may present safety disadvantages. Public fields that are poorly maintained may have dangerous debris that can seriously injure other players. Another disadvantage of grass is reduced playing time. Rainfall causes more damage to natural grass fields, leading to poor surface conditions and match cancellations. Additionally, the upkeep of grass is more time-consuming and costly as opposed to turf, so from a budgeting perspective, turf is advantageous.
Why Turf Fields Have Become the “Norm”
Of course, nature has not prevailed when it comes to playing surfaces in the soccer world. The majority of matches and soccer training from youth levels up to the international stage takes place on turf pitches. It has a glossy appearance that looks great in pictures and ads, although the purpose of artificial grass goes beyond aesthetics.
The main benefit of turf is its cost-effectiveness. Unlike grass, which involves far more maintenance (and therefore, comes at a higher cost), turf needs far less lawn care. Natural grass requires consistent fertilizing, mowing, and irrigating, whereas artificial grass can be maintained on a more casual basis.
This isn’t always the case, however. The Sports Turf Management Association (STMA) found that artificial grass can cost as much as $23,000 per year to maintain as opposed to $14,000 for natural grass.
Another advantage of playing on turf is increased playing time. Unlike grass fields, turf requires less maintenance and care, which can reduce the cost to use such fields.
In terms of performance, turf can be a boon or a burden for players. Unlike grass where its natural unevenness allows for slower paces and more control, artificial turf almost always contributes to a faster pace. Synthetic turf blades are short, so the ball moves much quicker- and at the expense of ball control. For teams that prefer a faster pace, playing on turf can be an advantage. However, turf doesn’t cut it for many teams- notably European and South American teams where ball movement and control is paramount. Also, the ball has a higher bounce on turf fields, which can catch players off guard.
Safety is the factor that raises eyebrows about the modern adoption of turf fields. Although there is some debate around the differences in turf and grass safety, the general consensus is that turf increases players’ injury risk. One study found that the rate of ACL injuries increased by 45% on turf, largely due to cleats failing to grip to the artificial grass as they do on natural grass.
Another concern with artificial turf is the hardness of the turf surfaces. For example, the 2015 Women’s World Cup gave way to a gender discrimination case (which was later withdrawn) due to the hardness of the turf and its potential to cause injury. Hard impacts on these surfaces may increase the forces players endure and lead to more serious injuries.
Soccer Protective Gear is Key for Either Surface
At the 2023 Women’s World Cup, FIFA will allow natural grass fields, which may lead to natural grass adoption in lower levels of the sport. Until then, turf will remain the go-to surface for arenas around the world. Ultimately, whether players are on a turf surface or a hardened grass field, they need the right soccer protective gear to keep them protected from hard impacts or conditions that may lead to strenuous movements.