The header is one of the most popular moves in soccer. However, it can also be one of the most dangerous, leading to the risk of concussions and, perhaps, more severe forms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) – especially among children. That is why the possibility of banning headers in youth soccer has become a hot topic lately.
In particular, the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and Santa Clara Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE) launched a campaign in June 2014 to raise awareness about the dangers of allowing youth players to use headers. The coalition is pushing for a ban on headers in the sport until players reach the high school level.
The coalition has enlisted support from some of the most famous women’s soccer players in U.S. history, including Brandi Chastain and Cindy Parlow Cone, and has generated widespread coverage of their effort, including articles by Sports Illustrated and USA Today.
What Are the Risks of Allowing Headers in Youth Soccer?
Even though football is the leading cause of concussions and other brain injuries among youth athletes, soccer is not too far behind.
As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports, there were 10,436 TBI-related emergency room visits involving soccer players in the U.S. under the age of 19 between 2001 and 2009.
In reality, the number of youth soccer players with concussions during that time frame was probably much higher. However, young people – and their parents – often fail to recognize that they have suffered a concussion.
According to a white paper issued by the SLI/ISLE, “The Neurological Consequences of Heading in Soccer,” 64 percent of youth hockey players who participated in one survey mistakenly believed a concussion could not occur without a loss of consciousness, while 45 percent could identify only one of the symptoms associated with a concussion or none at all.
Also, a pair of studies recently discussed at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) annual meeting revealed that many parents lack a basic understanding about concussions, as HealthDay News reports.
Heading is a particular concern. According to the SLI/ISLE white paper, heading the ball or attempting to head the ball and colliding with another player, object or the ground accounts for about 30 percent of the total concussions in soccer.
If a child suffers a concussion, it can lead to the child missing weeks or months of school, as the paper points out. A child may suffer serious cognitive defects, including the inability to concentrate and memorize. Additionally, if the injury is not addressed properly, the child is at risk of suffering a repeated concussion and, perhaps, emotional and social effects as well.
What Are the Rewards of Banning Headers in Youth Soccer?
Even though the written guidelines issued by FIFA and other governing bodies in soccer recommend teaching heading as early as age 10, the SLI/ISLE and many others are pushing for a ban on headers until players reach high school.
In a released statement, Chastain said the rewards that would come from banning headers in youth soccer would outweigh the risks of allowing them.
“[A]s a coach, I would prefer my players had focused solely on foot skills as they develop their love of the game,” said Chastain, a volunteer assistant coach at the college level who is best known for scoring the winning goal in the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
Parlow Cone, currently head coach of the Portland Thoms FC pro team, said youth players would benefit from soccer instruction that focuses on coordination, technical skills and spatial awareness instead of on teaching headers.
“Delaying the teaching of heading skills, while still preparing players for heading by teaching jumping and landing and strengthening the neck, not only will help make the sport safer but is also developmentally appropriate,” she said.
Learn More, Get Involved
So, what do you think: Should headers be banned in youth soccer?
You should learn more about this subject and feel free to discuss it with your child’s soccer coach or the organization that he or she plays for on a regular basis. Talk with other parents as well.
If you think heading should wait until high school, you should organize support and petition your local soccer organization to enact a ban. You might just be part of a growing movement.