The Ongoing Debate: Natural Grass vs. Artificial Surfaces in the NFL + Training Template to Improve Player Safety
An Incomplete Strategy for Player Safety
Natural Grass vs. Artificial Surfaces
There is an interesting ongoing debate between the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the union representing NFL players, and the NFL regarding playing surfaces and player safety. The debate is: what type of playing surface is safer for the players - natural grass or artificial surfaces?
In this debate, the majority of current NFL players strongly prefer to play on natural grass fields, with one of the major reasons for this preference being that they believe natural grass carries a lower risk of injury. The NFLPA has published the injury data which supports their argument for natural grass fields being safer for players (see image below). Yet, despite the players' preference for natural grass and the data presented by the NFLPA, the NFL and its owners continue to gloss over the issue, taking the stance that it is a non-issue.
The reason for discussing this topic is to convey the belief that the NFLPA's strategy to reduce/mitigate injury is incomplete and, sadly, highly unlikely to yield any tangible benefits for the players they represent.
Internal Strength Training = Blindspot
This ongoing debate highlights a persistent problem (i.e., blindspot), that we have discussed at Absolute regarding modern sports: the complete lack of emphasis on utilizing specific training to increase athletes' physical capacity and reduce injuries. We can use a simple formula to understand why NFL players are getting injured more on artificial playing surfaces: their physical capacity is less than the physical demands (see image below). This ongoing debate is another instance where there is a lack of physical capacity to meet the physical demands, and as strength practitioners, we are not involved in the discussion, which is utterly ridiculous.
A Strategy Destined for Failure
From a complex systems perspective, we at Absolute recognize two levels of intervention when analyzing this debate: the playing surface and the player. However, it appears that the NFLPA only acknowledges one level of intervention, which involves changing the playing surfaces or external demands. Based on the available data, it is logical to believe that there is a high probability of reducing or mitigating injuries by changing all the playing surfaces to grass.
So the next question is: Will the NFL mandate all owners to switch from artificial surfaces to grass? Absolutely not. The league and its owners have consistently over the years effectively communicated to the NFLPA that changing playing fields from artificial surfaces to natural grass is not going to happen. Consequently, because of the owner’s stance, the NFLPA's current strategy to enhance player safety is unfortunately destined to fail. They have invested all their efforts in a game they are losing, without simultaneously addressing player physical capacity enhancement.
An Alternative Strategy to Enhance NFL Player Safety
In our opinion, the NFLPA’s strategy should do two things. First, they should lobby the owners to switch playing surfaces to natural grass - which they are already unsuccessfully doing. Second, they should involve strength coaches/practitioners in the discussion with the sole aim of developing joint and tissue-specific training protocols that enhance player physical capacity (i.e., address the physical capacity vs. demands mismatch). These specific protocols can then be shared by the NFLPA with its players so players who want to change the capacity vs. demands mismatch have the option and ability to do so. This option has no risk and no impediments.
The NFL Ecosystem
We have written prior how complexity science enables us to know that to make true change in a system; the intervention must occur at the appropriate levels. In this case, to make true system change (i.e., reduce NFL athlete injuries), we must view football as an ecosystem, and, in doing so, identify that there are two distinct environments of intervention to be considered: internal and external. The strategy we are proposing intervenes at both of these levels; whereas, the current failing NFLPA strategy is only occurring at the external level.
Keep in mind that at Absolute, we consider the external environment the Level of Competition. It is at this level that we want the athlete to succeed by using training inputs to stimulate and increase their internal capacities - something that is a total blindspot in the NFLPA’s approach.
NFL Players Association. (4/19/23). NFL Approach to Field Surface Uneven [Webpage]. Retrieved from https://nflpa.com/posts/nfl-approach-field-surface-uneven
Proposed Training Template to Reduce Achilles Tendon Injuries in the NFL Athlete
At Absolute, our programming practice focuses on joint and tissue-specific training for professional athletes. We have expertise in creating training protocols that promote positive changes in connective tissue and increase its load-bearing capacity. Since the NFL has no plans to switch from artificial surfaces to natural grass, our specialized training is exactly what NFL players need to enhance their safety and performance. We recommend a general training template for all NFL players who will be playing on artificial surfaces, which applies to every player in the league.
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