When it comes to research, the University of Tennessee is in a unique position. It’s located right in the “transition zone,” so it can grow both warm- and cool-season grasses. For the past five years, it has also been home to one of the largest sports turf research programs in the country — the only study currently looking at the connection between athlete injuries and turf.

“Our research is focused on the athlete and the surface — not only how to make that surface perform better but also how to make it safer, particularly for children,” says plant sciences professor John Sorochan, Ph.D. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to fund projects to look at areas like K-12 and city park fields. These areas have limited budgets, but children are using them all the time and they can get hurt because of overuse.”


Sorochan and his team are looking closely at injuries to the lower extremities, including knees and ankles. One interesting finding so far is that young female athletes are up to 40 percent more likely than young male athletes to sustain turf-related injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee. The team has also discovered that the athlete’s footwear (specifically what’s on the bottom of the shoe) can make more of a difference than the actual sports surface itself.


The study includes both artificial and natural turf — identifying the pros and cons of each and determining which is the best fit for areas such as athletic fields and parks. Phase two of the research will focus on more human test subject work, looking at how athletes fatigue and how long it takes them to recover. As Sorochan points out, fatigue can affect both physical and mental performance, possibly contributing to mistakes that can make an athlete even more vulnerable to injury.

In all, the University of Tennessee currently has 18 to 25 different sports turf projects going on, using research blocks ranging from 30 ft. x 15 ft. (9.1 m x 4.6 m) to 25,000 sq. ft. (2,323 sqm). Test methods include everything from measuring surface hardness to critical fall height for head impact criteria. One tool they’re using is the Tennessee Athletic Field Tester, which simulates the actual impact forces being generated by an athlete back to the body.

“We’re just trying to get commonsense points so that we can quantify the best and the safest way to maintain an athletic field,” Sorochan notes. The team is also looking at ways to optimize youth sports to make them safer for young players. Ultimately, it’s not only about changing the game but also about changing the culture and working with parents to understand what’s best for their children.


“We’re excited to look at all sorts of data, and we’ve only scratched the surface,” Sorochan adds. “The bottom line is if we can save one kid from tearing an ACL or rolling an ankle, we’ve done what we’re hoping to do.”

In addition to this ongoing sports turf research program, Sorochan is also focusing on two other areas: home lawns and golf course putting greens. In his 14 years at the University of Tennessee, he’s seen a number of interesting projects.

For the last four years, Sorochan has also been working on putting green research, looking at different mower configurations for optimizing the quality of cut, green speeds, consistency and wear and tear on the mowers themselves. “We’ve looked at everything from using front brushes where the groomers are to determining the optimal behind center distance, which is where the bedknife comes in contact with the reel,” Sorochan explains. “It’s validating what’s optimal — we’ve actually quantified it and now we’re publishing it in turf journals.”

Another study looked at golf courses with cool-season bentgrass that were mowing their greens every day. Sorochan and his team found it was better to mow every other day and roll the green on the days when the course didn’t mow, especially during hot summers in the transition zone. The team also worked with an ag economist to track the cost of implementing the alternating mowing/rolling practice and discovered significant potential savings — enough to pay for another part-time employee or summer interns in one example.


Looking to the future, Sorochan sees the University of Tennessee continuing to pursue research in the area of turf safety. Other hot topics he sees on the horizon include water use efficiencies and technologies that do more of the work. The key to all of this research? It’s independent. Funding from different sources makes it possible, but science determines the outcome. And companies like Toro use this independent data to continue evolving and improving product design.

Check out this video for a look at the Center for Safer Athletic Fields research facility at the University of Tennessee’s ag research center in Knoxville, Tenn., and visit the university’s Institute of Agriculture website for more on the program.