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Banning headers for its youngest players could be a transformative moment for US Soccer

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The public’s awareness of soccer’s concussion crisis has improved dramatically over the past year. With episodes such as Christoph Kramer’s during the World Cup final, Hugo Lloris against Everton two seasons ago and many others, the tide has turned in concussion awareness – an important and necessary step.

Now, with the settlement of a lawsuit involving US Soccer and youth soccer clubs, a new recommendation has been made: ban all heading below the U-11 level. It’s a potential watershed moment, one that not only makes the federation look prescient but will also focus youth development on skills sorely lacking in US players.

ESPN broadcaster and former New England Revolution forward Taylor Twellman has been soccer’s staunchest and most vocal advocate of concussion awareness for years after the many he suffered during his playing career. As he mentioned on a recent appearance on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” when players aged eight through 10 play without coaches, they’re not naturally thinking about heading the ball. He also mentioned that in off-camera talks with the multi-national cast he worked with on ESPN’s World Cup coverage, most said 11 was the earliest they started heading the ball. The first skills most young players develop are with their feet. Whatever headers’ trauma is on a developing brain, it’s a skill that can wait until players are more physically developed.

What has turned out to be the most appalling part of increased awareness is the lack of education most have about the risk of head injuries. The reaction to the ban has been surprisingly, yet somehow unsurprisingly, mixed, with some reacting harshly to the proposed ban. But heading is not the most important skill a nine-year-old soccer player should be learning, regardless of what the risks are, and with so many young kids being coached by parents unaware of the dangers, the wrong parts of the game can be emphasized.

Maybe part of the blowback is American sport sensibilities, which may be coming to light in an ugly way. We value competition and winning above all else, including the experiences of playing and learning. In my own experiences, playing soccer up until age 10 was all about winning, whatever I learned about how to play the game be damned. Watching my sister, who played soccer from age six through her senior year in high school, the emphasis on specific skills and free play to learn on one’s own time was lessened. The success of a nine-year-old whose father is coaching the team seems more important than whether his son is learning the game, growing as a player or even sometimes having fun.

Around the world, that isn’t necessarily the case. Heading the ball is a small island in a vast sea of these examples. Here, whatever it takes to win, even if it means heading the ball with a technique that is far from correct, or keeping a player in when they have taken a blow to head and should be sitting, can and will be done.

The overall issue of concussions in soccer is so complex that even some of what has been mentioned here is reductionist. Banning headers for players under 11 is certainly an important step in preventing brain trauma that could lead to further problems, and it may benefit players by focusing their time on different skills, but as the reaction to the ban has shown, all of us still need more education on what and why this issue is one of the biggest facing the game.

Maybe it’s our own naiveté, maybe it’s our culture, maybe it’s that education on technique and issues is lacking, but whatever the combination is, this moment could be transformative in the way the game is played in this country. And that can only be a good thing.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. B-rad

    November 13, 2015 at 5:10 am

    In response to some of the people saying that most concussions are caused by collisions with something other than the ball, I agree that the ball causes few concussion but if players aren’t trying to head the ball there is a much lower chance of heads colliding or head to elbows or any other body parts thus reducing the chance of concussions even if “heading the ball” isn’t the main culprit

    • Matt

      January 10, 2016 at 2:30 pm

      I believe B-rad here has a solid understanding of what this ruling is trying to prevent, which is head on head/body contact which can and often does result in concussions. Unlike BaronGZ who is ridiculing the ruling with the understanding that it is being implemented due to the danger of head to ball contact, which can but rarely does result in concussions.

      I am neither fully for nor against the ruling, but in my opinion it’s likely for the best, not because of the hopeful outcome of lessening the number of concussions in youth soccer, but more so because America as a soccer nation is so far behind it’s world rivals in technical ball skills. My thought is that with a ban on heading, there will be more time an emphasis spent on learning the ball skills our youth sorely lack. Furthermore, over time it may even lead to a positive change in playing style, with more short on the ground passing versus long balls to physically imposing players. Think Barcelona vs. West Ham.

  2. Greg

    November 12, 2015 at 11:19 am

    While the damage due to concussions are believed to be cumulative (and I agree), there needs to be a lot more research. I am a scientist, so I believe in data. Currently, we are up in arms due to the extraordinary damage some American football players have suffered, and rightly so. They have a lifetime of banging heads. But before we condemn football at all levels, we should be looking at the brains of players that topped out at the various levels of the game. I am sure that most would agree that a 220lb safety running a 4.5 40yd dash hitting a similarly sized wide out is more violent than two high school freshmen colliding in the same manner. Likewise, 11 year Olds do not hit the soccer ball with anything like the energy (kinetic energy is a product of mass and the square of the velocity, divided by two) that a 15 year old does, and certainly not like an adult.
    I am guessing, and again I would like to see research and am willing to change my mind, but most soccer related concussions would seem to come from collisions or falls. Players leading with elbows or knocking heads is likely (again, a guess) are more dangerous than the ball.
    The headers that I have seen at the young ages appear (need measurement of it) to be gentle for the most part.
    One of the players in our club was concussions by slipping on a floor and hitting the head. Months later when the player was cleared to play, the player was blind sided by the ball, and was concussions again. The player has now retired from soccer at 14. Non-headers all.
    It feels to me that some of this is due to the impact of professional sports’ concussion problem. We get a pile on mentality, as well as rationalizations in the manner of, concussions are a problem in all sports, so I can feel fine watching my preferred sport.
    Are concussions an issue? Yes, without a doubt. Should we try to find ways to reduce the risk? No question. Let’s get the data, see where and how the concussions occur. Then make recommendations. Base it on data, not knee jerk.

    • Rebecca

      November 12, 2015 at 6:14 pm

      Well said, Greg. I have played since I was 7, and still play at 46, the only two concussions I have had were from a knee yo my head while goalkeeping and the other was during indoor hitting back of head directly after coming off wall. I have headed the ball since I can remember but was taught how to correctly do it wit the correct part of my head. I also coach and referee. If you don’t know this as a coach, you should not be teaching your playears to head the ball. Another issue is players trying to head low balls meant for your feet or a thigh trap, I see this all the time and will correct the player. But most concussions I have seen are from heads colliding, colliding with other body parts, blindsided from balls kicked, and goalkeepers hitting posts. Goalkeepers should be required to wear head gear, after all we will dive at players feet to save a ball. But players should also wear the headgear, especially if heading the ball. I know the gear just lessens, not prevention of concussion. But anything is better than nothing. West Texas middle school and high school athletes have brain scans to monitor any problems arising from concussions. They have one as they enter program and at least one every year unlessential more are needed from injury.

  3. BaronGZ

    November 11, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    Less than 1 month ago, my 2nd grader in rec soccer– (4v4)managed to have a ball bounce high enough and he successfully headed the ball forward into the goal (without injury). It was a very benign header if anything at all. The Rec ref being aware of this court case disallowed the goal. For the next two games my child avoided every ball coming his way that was above waist height for fear of this unwritten rule. It transformed a decent player building a skill into a fearful player. Yay overprotective lawsuits! Mission accomplished!

    I’ve coached several 1st and 2nd grade recreational teams — this ruling is really unnecessary. The ball bounces head high maybe 3-4 times a season until they are at least 8 years old — and then most of the kids naturally get out of the way. There is no reason to practice headers as they just don’t happen for younger kids. The 10+ year-olds who are more competitive are the few who start with headers.

    There is more danger from collisions than headers — what is the lawsuit a precursor to?
    Let me suggest this: As the next class action, they should investigate the large number of ankle and leg injuries suffered by age 10 and under players. I’m sure that they’ll find many more injuries than the headers generated. We should ban kicking until age 10 — then no player will get a hurt ankle or knee.
    Heaven forbid someone fall and get kicked in the head — that is likely to cause a concussion!

    • Sgc

      November 12, 2015 at 10:18 am

      You don’t know that your son wasn’t injured. It doesn’t take a concussion to do damage, and the damage is accumulative.

  4. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    November 11, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    As someone who has a young kid who has played since he was 3, I applaud US Soccer. I’ve told my son many times to just let it fall if it goes up in the air. It’s not worth the risks.

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