Updated: May 3
There has been a growing concern over concussions and head injuries within youth soccer in the United States within the past few years. The word “concussion” has become almost taboo. Growing research into the serious long term effects of concussions, as well as the NFL controversy, make concussions a major concern for any parent. In 2010, youth soccer accounted for more concussion related injuries (50,000) than wrestling, baseball, basketball and softball (1). Because of this, in 2016, the U.S. Youth Soccer organization, introduced a ban on heading the ball in both games and practices for children under the age of 11 years old. It was thought that the impact of the ball when heading could be enough to cause concussions in young athletes. This divided the soccer world somewhat. On one hand, safety should be paramount when competing in any form of athletic activity. On the other, heading a ball is a massive part of the game of soccer. Being a center back I headed the ball more even more than the average soccer player does. For this reason I wanted to express an opinion as to the efficacy of the ban.
Addressing such a controversial topic I wanted to clear this up from the outset. What follows is a personal opinion. It should not be taken as gospel. I follow U.S. Soccer’s guidelines for heading the ball in all age groups, whether that be team or private training, as should all coaches. I am in no way, shape, or form an expert on concussions or any injuries. In fact if any doctor happens to be reading this I would love them to get in contact to educate me further about heading a soccer ball.
Now that that is out of the way I would like to start with a confession; I did not know what a concussion was until I first arrived to play soccer in the US. I grew up playing soccer in the UK where there was (still might be) a distinct lack of education on the subject of concussions. To the best of my knowledge you are still allowed to head a soccer ball at any age. Even when I got to America and took my first concussion test I still naively thought a concussion was a “bad headache”. The longer I played, however, and the more the subject of concussions became more mainstream I began to realize how serious a concussion could be. This was emphasized when a fellow athlete suffered a concussion and could not concentrate correctly for a full 3 weeks. A recent documentary made by Alan Shearer (England soccer legend) further highlighted to me the long term effects of repeated concussions. I highly recommend this documentary to anyone wanting to learn more about the effects of concussions and I’ve included a link to an article about it at the end of this post (2).
Heading the Ball Isn’t Going Away
Having said all this, heading the ball is a big part of the game of soccer. A major part of both defending and scoring, it is ingrained in the very fabric of soccer. I have tried my best to find out when heading the ball became part of soccer but could not find a date. My best guess is that it has been part of the game since soccer was invented. It is not going away any time soon. Players who do not head the ball are at a major disadvantage and letting the ball bounce is seen as a major mistake. Effectively heading the ball is a skill in itself and as all players head the ball at the highest levels, aspiring players need to learn how to head the ball eventually if they want to play at that level.
The Problem with a Heading Ban
But where do I fall on the heading ban? If you asked me even 2 years ago I would have said that I am completely against the ban and that players should be able to head the ball at the U10 level if it is part of the game at the college and professional level. Over the last few years, however, my opinion has changed. Through more education and research into concussions it is obvious that they should be a concern in all sports. That is not to say I am completely in favor of the ban. I think that the reason that most players receive concussions is that they head the ball incorrectly in the first place. Heading the ball is a skill like any other and coaches do not teach it. Players reach a certain age and are just expected to know how to head the ball. You can’t say to a player the day they turn 12 they now must head a ball when they have never done it before. Neither can you throw a talented 10 year old into a U12 game and expect them to let a ball hit their head dropping from the sky. This is just asking for more concussions.
Restrict and Educate
Personally, I would like to see the following. Still restrict heading the ball for any player under the age of 11, but only during games. Allow them to practice correct heading technique during practice so that they are able to head the ball correctly when they are at the age they are required to do so. This is not to say kick the ball as high as you can and expect a 10 year old to head it. However, I think there is a place for common sense heading practice for players under 11 years of age.
I would also like to see more education offered to coaches on how to teach players how to head the ball correctly. I think U.S. Soccer has done a great job of bringing concussion education to the mainstream. However, I have not seen much heading instruction beyond throwing a ball to a kid and asking them to throw their forehead at it. I used to head the ball several times in every practice and game and to the best of my knowledge I never received a concussion. This may be because there may not be very much brain in there to begin with, but it may also be because I was taught how to head the ball correctly from a young age.
I can sum up this article in 4 points:
Concussions are serious and not to be messed with
Heading the ball is part of the game and not going away
The main problem with the heading ban is asking players to head the ball as soon as they turn 12 year old only encourages concussion
Restrict heading for U11s during games but allow heading to be taught in practice.
Again, this is only my personal opinion. I’m no doctor and not an expert on concussions but teaching players how to correctly head a ball seems to me a more effective way of reducing the risk of concussion rather than banning it entirely.
Thanks for Reading,