Repetitive Headers and Brain Injury

As I have posted on here before, I am concerned with the risk of brain injury to young players not necessarily resulting from head-to-head contact, or contact with the ground or goal post, but because of the cumulative affect of repetitive heading of the ball.  The literature online is lacking.  A few years ago, you could find nothing.  I looked because I was coaching a U10 player (who is a U12 now) who sustained a concussion during a game from heading a punted ball.  From then on, I discouraged our players from heading punted balls.  The only literature I could find suggested that, for boys, heading under the age of 12 should be discouraged because of growth issues.

In the interim, I often asked around.  Among soccer adults (especially Brits!), they mock the idea and immediately get defensive.  It seems that any suggestion that something should be done to reduce the risk of trauma is a indictment of their manhood.  For example, try suggesting or asking an English trainer if your child should wear headgear as a protection from heading injuries…

When I mentioned it to referees, they are completely ignorant.  I usually mention it as they search my bags trying to find the hardest possible ball to play with.  I have decided that this is a sort of false-machismo to which most all referees subscribe.  They get to tell you that your ball is not hard enough — they seem to enjoy it.  Somehow, you get the feeling, the rejection is about more than just the ball.  Ok, maybe I am too sensitive.  (Oddly, the rules do not support their interpretation – the official rules suggest a range, not necessarily “brick” status.  Ask them about this and they will deny).  Why do I care?  I don’t know — maybe in the back of my mind I think the ball will do less harm to my kids’ heads if it is a touch softer.  (I am probably way off base scientifically).  Referees respond to my request similar to English trainers scoffing at headgear — playing with a softer ball threatens the masculinity of the game.  Maybe soccer players and officials are a touch sensitive because, in our country, soccer is always considered a “soft sport.”

(As a side, I will tell you the other reason that referees do this is a shallow way of demonstrating their presence and authority to a coach.  Scene 1: Coach:  “Here is the game ball.”  Referee (after examining it, squeezing it, sniffing it…) “It needs air.” (exasperated tone).  Scene 2:  Mad scramble by opposing coach to “show the official his quality” – by providing the hardest possible ball.  Scene 3:  If successful, opposing  coach gets a “nod” providing the official with support for his demands, while you are left tending a flock of unworthy specimens.)

OK, I got that out of my system, back on course…Today, there is an article by Beth Carter citing a report from a neuroscientist from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She states:

Even repeated light blows to the head can harm cognition, according to a study by neuroscientist Anne Sereno and her team at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. They don’t know if the impact is permanent, or if there might be cumulative effects over time, and concede more research is needed. But the findings add to a growing body of knowledge about the long-term risks of head trauma in sports and evidence suggesting repeated sub-concussive blows may be detrimental over time.

http://www.wired.com/playbook/2013/03/soccer-headers-cognition/

The actual link to the UTHS article is here.

A recent blog article about the effectiveness of soccer headgear is here.

While heading the ball is a major part of soccer, I prefer to teach the technique and use of it as a control mechanism for bounding balls (rather than balls in flight).  So, go ahead, have your fun.  Call me weak.  But, I think that this is an issue that needs attention.  One of the writers suggested that FIFA will not get involved until they are legally required — they do not want their game to appear dangerous.  Apparently, the same sort of “you are not tough enough” approach was used to suggest there was no need for shin guards.

Cheers, and Happy Spring Break.

/s/ Wimpy American Soccer Coach