Tag Archives: headers

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

US Women’s National Team Drifting away from Drift and Lift?

So…that’s what I call it.  If you watch the US Women play, I am sure you notice the regularity with which lofted crosses are served in hopes of careening off of Abby Wambach’s head.  Against the Japanese, it appeared to be our only tactic.  (Yes, there was a long ball goal — any team will take those shots too).  By and large, we pinned our hopes on Wambach’s now famous noggin.  How did we get to this?


Watch the Olympic qualifying matches and you will see.  Be on the lookout for the number of references to our “athleticism” and “height advantage.”  The commentators at the World Cup last summer sounded like they were measuring football players at a combine.  Why, in the men’s game, are the best players in the world under 5’8″ while in the women’s game, we still resort to uncanny predictors like height and strength?  In the prosperous country we live, are we resorted to resting our female soccer advantage on how tall or strong someone is?  That is so not-soccer. 


 (Oddly enough, size was the way teams’ chances of success were measured in the past –whichever team had the most weight in stones was considered the favorite — it, however, did not predict the success of the smaller Scottish squad that defeated the heavier and favored English in the first international friendly; mind you, that was over 100 years ago).  


I recall watching the game against Japan and, on more than one occasion, a midfielder or forward had an opportunity to attack the middle of the goal — with the Japanese pressure backpedaling.  Time and again, rather than look for a soft through in the middle, our players “drifted” to the side then “lifted” the ball into Abby’s head.   Abby would even drift to the optimal heading spot given the angle of her server’s drift.  I dubb it the “Drift and Lift” offense (you heard it here first!).  While it can result in cool goals, I generally hate it.  Can you imagine Xavi opting to drift wide of the goal then lofting a ball into the air to a player in the box surrounded by defenders (hopefully one of his)?  The greatest team in the World right now specializes in attacking the goal with short, soft through balls mixed with diagonal runs.  That is the soccer I want to watch.  


Now, in today’s press, is the line that got me thinking of the Drift & Lift.  The US Women are switching to a 4-2-3-1 (4-5-1) in lieu of their 4-4-2 in an effort to play more possession-based soccer.  Here is the quote:  

“As they begin defense of their Olympic gold, the U.S. women will unveil a new formation, a 4-2-3-1 meant to foster the possession-oriented style and encourage players to interchange positions more than the 4-4-2 they were using.”  USA Today, January 17, 2012.  4-2-3-1 v. Drift & Lift?

Great news indeed!  Abby is still up top, but now maybe we can look in the middle of the field for space to attack instead of racing (or retreating) to the sides.  Great news for up and coming young women soccer players who, while not necessarily gifted in height, can create, attack, possess, etc.  Some locally come to mind. . . Taking size out of the equation opens the door to honest assessment of talent.  It may also mean the US Women playing a Marta-styled player at attacking mid rather than holding mid.  Again, a local player comes to mind…


To be fair, I am not against size in soccer.  I just like to think of soccer as the pure sport that celebrates creativity, talent, athleticism, and speed regardless of size.  Too many sports place too much emphasis on one or the other.  You have heard it before — “too short for basketball, volleyball…too small for football…” etc.  Soccer takes on all – tall or short, big or small — the only price to admittance is ability to control a ball with your feet and create.  While soccer’s god does have an alter (Speed), greatness can be found with players lacking even that quality.   (Now, if you can combine speed and quickness (they are different) with balance and agility, throw in passion for the game with equal parts of competitive fire, a dash of IQ, and even some humility and willingness to learn and be taught, presto….you have a star.)