My first play upon my return to playing soccer this fall was a header. It came without hesitation as my natural instincts took over: Ball’s in the air…head it! It’s just like riding a bicycle, if riding a bicycle required using your noggin as sports equipment conveniently attached to your neck.
It’s what we coaches tell our players to do, especially the tall ones: “Head the ball!” My U-13 boys’ team made quite a few headers this season, some of them gorgeous shots on goal, some of them sloppy, top-of-the-head, “that’s gotta hurt” moon balls that should never had collided with their still developing brains.
And now, it seems there’s proof that heading a soccer ball can lead to brain injury.
A study released yesterday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America revealed that soccer players who head the ball frequently have brain abnormalities similar to those found in traumatic brain injury patients.
Players who headed the ball at the threshold of 1,000 to 1,500 times per year showed abnormailities in scans of regions of the brain responsibile for attention, memory, executive funcition and certain vision functions.
I have no idea who’s heading the ball that often unless they play for the English Premiere League or hang out in the backyard juggling with just their heads. Even my players who are on two different teams playing year-round would have a difficult time hitting that number of headers. I’m not even sure I hit that in my years on the field at Boston University.
But I can say I’ve pulled kids off the field who seem dazed after a hard header, and that one of my players suffered a mild concussion practicing headers this fall. (Note: not on my team. We don’t recommend practicing headers.)
The American Academy of Pediatrics says there’s not enough evidence to support a ban on heading in youth soccer, but they do recommend minimizing the use of heading.
As a player and a coach, I think there are some common sense solutions:
1. Don’t practice heading. You’ll never head that much in a game, so there’s no need to repeat it over and over again.
2. Don’t head moon balls. Bloomberg reports that a soccer ball can travel as fast as 34 miles per hour — twice that in pro sports. If the goalie punted the ball to you at mid-field, don’t let your head take the brunt of it. Trap it or deflect it to another player. Or, dare I say, let it go (unless you’re my defender, and we’re losing. Still, leave your head out of it.)
3. Don’t always be the Shamu. My brother’s soccer team calls him “Shamu,” because, at 6′ 2″, he uses his height to head the ball more often than other players. (When he misses it, they shout, “Hold the fish higher!” Heh. Soccer players. Bunch of hooligans.) Count how many times you’re the Shamu in a game and then cut the average in half. Someone else can go for the fish.
What do you think? Should heading soccer balls be banned from youth sports?