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No more heading in youth soccer, but is this enough to keep kids safe?

December 10, 2015

Concussions are a hot topic these days, and for good reason.

From 2001 to 2009, the number of children who were treated in emergency rooms for sports-related concussions or traumatic brain injuries skyrocketed, and this has prompted an ongoing public dialogue about how to keep our kids safe while playing sports.

The latest development in this discussion came when the U.S. Soccer Federation announced new safety guidelines for youth soccer that prevents players ages 10 and younger from heading the ball. The initiative also reduces the number of headers for the 11-to-13 age group by allowing them in practice only.

While parents and doctors largely agree that this is a step in the right direction to protect children’s growing brains from harm while playing sports, the question we are left with is this:

Is this enough to keep our children safe while playing soccer?

Headers aren’t the main cause of concussions in soccer

An investigation into the cause of soccer-related injuries, published in the September 2015 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, revealed that heading was responsible for 30% of boys’ concussions and 25% of girls’ concussions.

However, it was contact with another athlete that contributed to the greatest number of concussions: 69% for boys and 51% for girls.

Even within the group who sustained heading-related concussions, the majority (78% of boys and 62% of girls) were injured through contact with another player while heading.

What are the experts saying?

Dr. Elizabeth Davis, sports medicine specialist at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, believes that preventing kids from heading will make soccer safer.

Dr. Davis explains:

"Heading properly doesn’t cause a concussion. It’s more the head-to-head contact or the repercussions of not heading the ball properly (i.e. the whiplash effect from weak neck muscles or hitting the ball with the wrong part of the head) that causes injury.

However, preventing heading will reduce the risk of injury because no heading means a lower chance of head-to-head contact between players. But please understand that the risk still is not zero. Kids who are running full-speed at each other to get a ball can collide and have a head injury. Concussions can also be caused by children falling and hitting their heads on the ground or a piece of equipment."

Dr. Davis emphasizes to her patients the importance of learning the rules of the game as well as proper form. She says that heading itself isn’t dangerous when performed correctly, but improper form or strength deficits can contribute to a head injury.

She also reminds us that children are especially susceptible to head injuries and deserve extra measures of protection. She wants parents to know:

“Concussions are more dangerous in children, even up until the age of 25 when the adult brain is fully developed. Adults tend to recover much faster and have less long-term complications than young children. One concussion in a child is not likely to lead to long-term problems, but repeated concussions (more than three) and concussions that occur very close together (within two days) increase these risks.”

Researchers from the University of Colorado who authored the previously mentioned study acknowledge the role of heading in concussions, but also ask us to consider reducing athlete-to-athlete contact throughout all aspects of the game.

After analyzing the participation of tens of thousands of high school soccer players for a period of nine years, study authors concluded:

“Soccer has been allowed to become a more physical sport over time because more athlete-athlete contact is occurring, without a concurrent increase in the frequency of fouls or sanctions awarded by referees… We believe that reducing athlete-athlete contact across all phases of play will more effectively prevent concussions, as well as other injuries, than will simply banning heading.”

They advocate for reduced athlete-to-athlete contact through better enforcement of existing rules as well as better education about the rules of the game and improved coaching of techniques such as heading.

The conclusion we can draw is this: Stay Tuned!

While preventing heading in children makes the game safer, the conversation must continue.

We need more scientific studies to determine conclusively which factors put children at risk for head injuries and the types of interventions that successfully prevent these occurrences.

As parents, we must continue to advocate for the safety of our children’s sports above all else while still acknowledging all of the positive aspects of play. As a community, we must persist in seeking sound information to put sensible safeguards in place for the next generation of soccer players.