The possible dangers of an artificial soccer field

Parents and professionals alike are concerned about the risks and injuries that come with playing on turf fields. Photo by Ana Hernandez.

How turf soccer fields are causing devastating injuries to unsuspecting athletes

Injuries are not uncommon for athletes and are especially frequent for soccer players. It seems as though every player has had to endure one type of injury or another during their career. For some, it may be a concussion from an opponent’s heavy hit, for others, it may be a sprained ankle from being stepped on or landing awkwardly.

For other players, however, severe injuries seem to occur at random: a player collapses on the field without anyone or anything around them, leaving referees, coaches, parents and fellow players concerned. This was the case for 23-year-old Vanessa Bianchi.

In August, 2010, the first-year CEGEP student attended a tryout for the John Abbott College soccer team. During a scrimmage on the second day of tryouts, Bianchi tried to turn with the ball to avoid her opponent. It was a simple move she had done hundreds of times before. However, this time, it was different.

“I had no idea what happened,” Bianchi said. “I’d never felt pain like that in my entire life.”

Bianchi had placed her right foot on top of the ball and planted her left foot onto the artificial field for balance. As she turned, the right half of her body pivoted, while her left leg stayed stuck in the field.

“As soon as I moved, I felt that my entire foot was stuck— and then I heard the pop,” Bianchi said.

For Bianchi, the turf was the only possible culprit. “The other girl wasn’t close to me at all, and I didn’t trip over the ball,” Bianchi said. “I never thought I could have injured myself that badly just by playing.”

After undergoing an MRI on her left knee, doctors concluded she had torn her ACL and needed surgery if she ever wanted to play again — which she did.

Parents and players alike are concerned about the frequency and severity of injuries occurring on the turf fields.

“Every time I went for physiotherapy, there was some other player there with the same injury as me— some were even worse,” Bianchi said. The medical community has slowly started listening to the public’s comments and concerns.

Dr. Raoul Daoust, a surgeon at the Jewish General Hospital, said links can be drawn between artificial turf and the injuries that have been happening.

“Playing on turf is very different than playing on grass,” Daoust said. “Grass is much more forgiving on the body, and is a lot softer to land on.”

Pivoting, turning and making quick movements is difficult on turf because of how stiff it is, according to Daoust, and can ultimately lead to severe muscle and ligament damage.

As the parent of a soccer player, he too is concerned about his daughter potentially hurting herself during games and practices.

“Turf, as we know, is very rigid. So not only do I worry about her tearing ligaments and muscles, I also get nervous when she comes home after games all bloody and scratched from sliding on it,” Daoust said. “It can be very painful and lead to some serious infections.”

The turf can be especially unforgiving to players attempting to make post-recovery comebacks. Following surgery on her ACL, Bianchi took the required six month rest. As she regained the strength in her leg, she gradually began practicing and playing again. It took less than three months before history repeated itself. A similar incident occurred when, during a game, she attempted to make a quick turn to catch opponent with the ball.

“I guess I moved too quickly and my knee just totally gave out again,” Bianchi said, shaking her head. “That was the end of my soccer career.”

Thankfully, recent innovations in footwear are beginning to make their way onto players’ feet—aiming to keep them on the turf as opposed to on the sidelines.

Turf cleats are designed more like running shoes, rather than regular soccer cleats, and offer athletes a more stable landing on the stiff, yet spongy surface.

Mario Buttino, former owner of the soccer specialty store Evangelista Sports West Island, said recent sales of turf cleats have risen as players become more aware of the benefits they hold.

Graphic by Thom Bell
Graphic by Thom Bell

“Injuries on turf have been becoming more and more frequent, it seems,” Buttino said. “I think players realize that maybe wearing a simpler-looking, safer cleat holds more value than wearing the cleats that the pros do.”

The studs found on the base of the cleat are always rounded when designed for turf. This allows players to pivot without getting caught in the stiff surface, helping evade severe injuries like ACL and MCL tears. For soccer players that play on artificial turf, investing in a specialized pair of cleats is well worth it, according to Buttino.

Despite objections from various sport and medical communities, artificial turf seems to be the best way to practice and play games for some athletes.

Julia Bianchi, a first-year soccer player for the Concordia women’s soccer team and younger sister of Vanessa Bianchi, trains on artificial turf fields five to six times a week, and hasn’t stepped foot on a grass field in years.

In terms of the quality of playing surface, the younger  Bianchi prefers turf over grass, since grass fields are often not well-maintained and are easily damaged by aggressive weather. Additionally, she said she finds that turf provides a more stable and even surface for the ball to travel on.

With regards to injuries in past seasons, the younger Bianchi has had her fair share—but none, to her knowledge, were related to playing on turf. However, some recent unexplained pains have made her question this belief.

“This summer, I had some ankle problems, but I can’t be sure if they are necessarily related to playing on artificial turf or not,” Bianchi said.

Despite certain concerns, artificial fields are becoming more and more common. According to the Montreal Gazette, Pierrefonds-Roxboro made a deal with the Lester B. Pearson School Board to install a second artificial turf field at Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School.

The field will be accessible to both local children’s teams and students. The project will cost approximately $2.5 million, and is the most recent project in a series of new artificial turf installations being built on the West Island. Other projects include a field at Terra Cotta Park in Pointe-Claire and a field at Grier Park in Pierrefonds.

The current trend is to go artificial—and it doesn’t seem like that is about to change.

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