Over recent years there has been a growing concern over the number of concussions in youth soccer & the accumulative effect of sub-concussive hits to the head. There are even groups of medical doctors & concerned parents who are calling for an outright ban on heading the ball prior to 14 years of age, with some having gone so far as to file a suit against FIFA for their perceived inaction on these concerns [see link here].
I can’t help but feel two things about the growing cacophony around this issue: First, is that it will only become more prevalent if not dealt with in some way and second, that although well-meaning, it is wrong-headed (pun intended, sadly).
I don’t think anyone should ever believe that injuries or concussions will not occur in a contact sport like soccer, but we should consider improvements. Through some of the available data (much of it talked about at length here) we can say that approximately 30% of all concussions in youth soccer come from heading or actions in attempting to head the ball (head/head, head/elbow, head/turf).
This only speaks to documented concussions and still doesn’t address the effects of accumulation from sub-concussive head trauma. “So much happens when a young player springs into the air expecting to meet the ball with their forehead, and so much of it results in head trauma [e.g. concussions]. Head meeting ball is the scenario of least concern. Problems arise when head meets shoulder, elbow, or another head.” Or turf after contacting with or tripping over another player.
I believe we can all agree that young children have many individual mitigating factors determining when they should be introduced to heading, and that young developing brains are the most affected by head trauma. With that in mind, I believe that we, people in technical & administrative positions in the game, should be aggressively selling ways to limit the number of incidences that can potentially lead to head trauma in young players. In doing so, we demonstrate leadership from within and can show those outside of the game that we are both dealing with the concerns and providing a beneficial developmental multiplier to young players in the process.
The banning of heading is problematic on a number of levels, but the biggest problem is that it really doesn’t provide anything positive back to the game in an age-appropriate fashion.
What I mean is, it can be argued that the majority of players under 11 years of age are lacking the muscular strength, coordination and ability to read the flight of the ball accurately in the air to execute the proper techniques when attempting to head a ball. Then why don’t we play the game in a more developmentally-appropriate fashion by limiting the amount of time the ball spends travelling through the air?
This is turn limits the amount of time children are visually searching for the ball in the air, getting their feet tangled, etc. leading to more headers and collisions. “If we want to significantly reduce concussions in youth soccer, [we need to know] do we need to ban heading altogether, or would we be successful if rules prohibiting athlete-athlete contact during heading were enacted and strictly enforced?” Dawn Comstock, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health who has studied extensively sports injuries at the high school level.
Put constraints on the game to put the ball on the ground more often, getting more purposeful touches and providing more decision-making opportunities to players all while reducing the incidences of head trauma. Win-win, no?
This also forces more problem-solving from positions like goalkeeper, where many coaches just tell their young keeper to get it as far away from their goal as possible. Now when the ball gets to the keeper, the outfield players need to move into gaps and create space to make themselves available, instead of just running to the middle of the pitch to wait for the ball to fall from the sky. Developmental multipliers AND reducing incidence rates of heading the ball.
The constraints that I suggest to put on to SSG’s games include: kick-ins to U10, no kicking from keeper’s hands until U12, no hoofing goal kicks (retreat lines) & no long corners (anything over waist high).
And if we stay with full-sized fields for U13, have a retreat line brought in to help playing out of the back without the struggle of getting it out of the penalty box hindering the decision-making of young players. That doesn’t mean long passes are out of the question, nor does it mean the ball never leaves the ground. It simply will limit the amount of times the ball is mindlessly booted into the air, creating unnecessary moments of heading/challenging for the ball in the air. This not only helps mitigate the number of actual concussions but also the accumulation of sub-concussive trauma experienced at young, vulnerable ages.
I urge all those involved in leadership positions at grassroots clubs & leagues to seriously consider adopting constraints like these to not only lessen the incidence rates of head trauma but furthermore, allow for more technical development and decision-making for our young players.
The teams that are Playing Better are examples already underway. Play Better teams focus on passing and keeping the ball on the ground, this increase the number of decision making scenarios throughout a game and also keeps kids safer from head injuries.
So why not sign up a team today?
Not convinced it’s an easy solution? It is! Learn the ins and outs from this simple webinar.