Having been involved with sport injury research over the last four decades, I’ve observed a significant amount of change in the quality of artificial turf surfaces. From the original attempts at duplicating grass within an indoor stadium, which was basically over-glorified green carpet installed on a pad over concrete, artificial turf has progressed to 3rd and 4th generations of various infill systems with some outstanding advantages. From an injury standpoint, the lower incidence of total injuries as well as the decreased number of severe lower extremity and shoulder cases rivals and exceeds natural grass in many parts of the US.
With the World Cup unfolding over the next few weeks, we’ll be viewing soccer played on pristine natural grass pitches. Remember that, in many cases across the US, our kids will not have the opportunity to experience this level of quality and oftentimes, not even at the collegiate level. For instance, in a study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine just last fall, we looked at the incidence, mechanisms, and severity of match-related collegiate women’s soccer injuries on FieldTurf versus natural grass involving a total of 13 universities over five competitive seasons. After a total of 797 collegiate matches, with 355 team matches (44.5%) played on artificial turf versus 442 team matches (55.5%) played on natural grass, the results were startling.
A total of 693 injuries were documented, with 272 (39.2%) occurring during play on FieldTurf, and 421 (60.8%) on natural grass. Significantly lower total injury incidence rates (IIR) of 7.7 injuries per 10 matches versus 9.5 injuries, and a lower number of substantial injuries (injuries lasting 7-21 days) of 0.7 versus 1.5 injuries per 10 matches were documented on FieldTurf versus natural grass, respectively. Our findings also indicated significantly less trauma on FieldTurf when comparing injury time loss, player position, injury situation, injury grade, injuries under various field conditions and temperature, cleat design and turf age. Although some similarities existed between FieldTurf and natural grass during competitive match play, we found that FieldTurf is a practical alternative when comparing injuries in collegiate women’s soccer. See the full study Here.
Keep in mind that, like automotive models, you have a wide range of turf infill systems differing in composition, installation, and quality and which, ultimately, will influence the opportunity for injury to adolescent and college athletes. Therefore, the findings of this study may be generalizable to only FieldTurf artificial turf systems.
So, to answer that burning question – the research confirms that FieldTurf is indeed safe for your kids to play on. In fact, it’s likely safer than the existing “grass” field that they are playing on today.