OFF THE PITCH: Field Scheduler is key to any club’s success

Who is the most important person in your sports organization? A coach? A player? An owner or board member? A volunteer? A behind-the-scenes staff person?

This week’s goalWA.net “Off the Pitch” column by Ruth Nicholson looks at the often thankless job of field schedulers and the many things they juggle that enable our athletes to train and compete in games. Ruth is an internationally-certified facilitator, a recovering field scheduler, and the founder of GO!, the expert resource for youth sports governance, operations, and coaching survival.

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by Ruth Nicholson

Years ago, a former EPL-player and business colleague of mine was with friends in England in a pub engaged in a debate. The question was: Who is the most important person in the FA (Football Association)? Was it a famous coach? A talented player? A team owner? The chair of the FA?

None of them.

The group decided that the most important person in the FA was the scheduler because the scheduler had to figure out how to choreograph all the various competitions domestically and across the continent and world, as well as breaks and rest periods.

Our local field schedulers do not have quite as broad a job as the FA scheduler. However, they face numerous challenges, many of which are nearly invisible to us as coaches, parents, players, and board members/owners. Without field schedulers, our athletes would have nowhere to train or compete in games.

What are the four key things field schedulers do to be effective?

  1. Build Good Working Relationships

P114442-T0-W380-H460-V3-Bgsc-SBCP-SOCWIf your club does not own its own fields and facilities, one of the most important things your field scheduler does is build positive working relationships with the organizations from which you rent your fields. This is especially critical when your club rents fields from a local parks department that works with a wide variety of sports organizations. Field schedulers should develop a habit of regularly communicating with parks staff, including what days of the week and times are most convenient to talk with them. They also need to discover what methods of communication work best, such as email or phone.

Part of building a good working relationship with the local parks staff is learning the basics of how then parks department and its scheduling system works. Knowledge of how many organizations and sports use their facilities, particularly how many of them use the same facilities that your club does, and understanding the process for requesting fields, including key deadlines, helps field schedulers be more effective in submitting field requests and successfully receiving the field allocations their clubs need.

When competing for field rentals, it is useful for club field schedulers to understand how their needs compare with other organizations that also want to use the same fields.

  • Who else uses the fields?
  • Do other organizations use more fields than your club? Fewer fields?
  • Do you need fields at the same or different times than other users?
  • Do you put more teams or fewer teams on the field than other users?
  • Are there minimum allocations or quotas that are allocated to specific types of field users?

Understanding the environment in which your club rents fields can help your field scheduler more successfully negotiate field permits when s/he can show that your club is thoughtful and efficient in its use of shared or limited park department field resources. In addition, field schedulers should discover what elements of the field scheduling process s/he can influence, as well as which ones are “givens” that cannot be changed.

Field schedulers and others in their organizations, such as parents, board members, and coaches, should avoid “going political” and jumping over the heads of parks staff to senior agency managers and elected officials to resolve small or minor issues. Elevating issues to senior supervisors and elected officials before it is appropriate can create distrust with the front-line parks staff with whom field schedulers need good working relationships to get the fields their clubs need for their players.

Finally, field schedulers need to know if there are connections between the parks scheduling system, local leagues, and assigning referees and game officials. If there are no links, and there often are not, then the field scheduler has additional connections and relationships to build.

  1. Know the Club’s Needs

P114442-T0-W380-H460-V3-Bgsc-SBCP-SOCWThe second critical key to field scheduling is knowing the field and facility needs of your club. This includes specific club needs for the number of fields and field sizes, days of the week for rentals, and time of day and length of training sessions and games.

In addition to the ideal number of fields needed, it is important for field schedulers to understand the club’s minimum field needs to support its programs. This enables field schedulers to be creative in accommodating situations in which there is a shortage of field space. Field schedulers develop this understanding to create the framework within which they schedule fields in four steps.

First, they talk to their Directors of Coaching and coaching staff to discover what individual teams need by asking questions about how often individual teams need to train, what teams need to train together or on adjacent fields, and what teams should not train together.

Second, field schedulers learn about the physical location, conditions, and features of the fields that can be rented and will be used by teams.

Third, they talk to their club treasurer and board members to understand what the club’s budget is for field rental.

Fourth, field schedulers then perform the magic of melding team needs, budget, and available fields. This can be further influenced by other factors, including

  • Coaches who work with multiple teams,
  • Age groups with multiple teams,
  • Younger teams who need to practice at earlier times than older teams,
  • Accommodating players who move or float between teams, and
  • Specialty training for individual positions, such as goalkeeper training.

Game scheduling offers another layer of complexity for field schedulers. One of the most challenging questions facing a field scheduler is how much time to allocate between games. This is dependent on several factors, including

  • How much time do coaches need between games if they coach multiple teams?
  • Is there adequate off-field space for team warm ups? Or do teams need to warm up on the field between games?
  • Do field lines and goals need to be reset for different age groups, such as small-sided games for younger players?
  • Should additional time be scheduled between games later in the day as a buffer for earlier games that may run late?
  • Are there terms in the field use permit with regards to starting and ending times for games? In the winter months or for late evening games, when do the field lights turn off?
  1. Create a System to Develop Field Schedules and Accommodate Changes

P114442-T0-W380-H460-V3-Bgsc-SBCP-SOCWOne of the keys to successful field scheduling is creating and communicating realistic expectations for the job among field schedulers and others in the club, including board members/owners, coaches, parents, and players. Much of what a field scheduler does is invisible to others as they may only see the final or updated schedules, not the effort that goes into creating those schedules.

The development of an effective field scheduling system includes the following components:

  • A calendar indicating when fields are allocated by parks departments and when permits can be issued. Permits often allocate field use in large time blocks that are only differentiated by club use, not by individual teams or games.
  • A related internal club calendar with dates for distributing detailed field schedules for individual team practices and games. Club members, including coaches, parents, and players, generally want as much advance notice as possible of upcoming team training and game times.
  • Identification of who is involved, and how they are involved, in developing and reviewing draft and final club field schedules. The field scheduler may develop a draft schedule with the input and review of Directors of Coaching, senior coaching staff, and coaches before issuing a final schedule.
  • An approach for addressing schedule changes, when needed. This should include who needs to be involved and how to distribute revised schedules to minimize confusion about which schedule is the most current.

It is important that field schedulers make field requests as early as possible and meet the deadlines of the parks department. It is also critical that field schedulers have backup plans for those times when they do not receive the field allocations and permits their clubs need. Options for securing alternate fields include requesting fields from other government agencies, private facilities (including community centers and schools), and other sports organizations who may own their own fields.

  1. Understand the Fine Print

P114442-T0-W380-H460-V3-Bgsc-SBCP-SOCWTo acquire fields, field schedulers also need to understand the details of the agreements that are required with parks departments. Some parks departments require the execution of formal contracts and the establishing of specific accounts for invoices and payments. When a club needs to establish a working relationship with a parks department, it is important to understand how long it will take to execute a contract and set up such accounts on the part of both the parks department and the field scheduler’s organization.

Some of the key questions field schedulers should ask include what type of insurance the parks department requires and the terms and conditions for field rental payments. Rental rates can be stratified in many ways, including differing rates for non-profit vs. for-profit organizations, for residents vs. non-residents of a certain jurisdiction, for members vs. non-members of specific organizations, for low income or special needs participants, or for specific age groups, such as youth rates vs. adult rates. Field schedulers should inquire about the full range of field rental rates so that they can negotiate the best rates for their organizations since field rental is often one of the top two largest expenses of most youth soccer clubs.

Field schedulers also need to know the policies and penalties for cancellation of field rentals, including refund policies. One of the internal challenges for clubs is developing an understanding among coaches, parents, and board members that many parks departments will not provide refunds for field rentals after a certain date, sometimes as much as 10-14 days prior to permitted field use. Referee organizations may have similar terms. Last-minute field changes can incur many costs to a club, including rental fees for unused fields, new rental fees for alternate fields, cancellation fees for referees, new fees for referees, and league fines. These can easily run into hundreds of dollars for a single training session, scrimmage, or game.

Finally, it is important for field schedulers to understand and communicate who makes the decision about cancelling field use for inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances. Often, there is a formal process within the parks department. Individual clubs may also have their own processes for making such determinations. A closely-related issue is how last-minute changes are communicated to coaches, players, parents, and others. Field schedulers should also understand what the parks department cancellation and rescheduling policies are for unanticipated weather and other events.

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Be Prepared

Whenever players are on the field for team training or games, someone may need to contact the field scheduler or the parks department staff to address unforeseen circumstances, such as the lack of field lighting, locked restrooms, or safety issues. It is important for field schedulers to provide teams and coaches after-hours contact information for both the club and the parks department staff.

In addition, coaches, team managers, and club staff should always carry copies of their club’s field use permits and individual team field use schedules whenever they are on the field. Often, these documents can help easily sort out field use confusion between the club’s teams and other field users.

Ruth Nicholson is the founder of GO!, a 24/7 Resource and Training Library offering youth sports organizations proven leadership and administrative tools. It includes resources for paid and unpaid staff, including field schedulers, registrars, business managers, and volunteers. To view the replay of the 30-minute GO! webinar on volunteer programs, click here: Build an Effective Volunteer Program in 5 Easy Steps.

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