Parents could have less wince-worry sideline moments now that the United States Soccer Federation has banned heading for children younger than age 10 and limited heading practice activity for players ages 11–13.
While watching a soccer player take a header elicits crowd awe, this head-meets-ball movement is responsible for one third of all concussions reported in youth soccer, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Concern about brain injuries to youth stemming from headers has been mounting among safety advocates for years.
The new rule, released this week, is part of a four-part comprehensive player safety campaign created to resolve the Mehr youth soccer class-action lawsuit that pursued rule changes to address head injuries. The other three safety initiatives (which are only recommendations for soccer programs that aren’t under U.S. Soccer control) are:
- Improving concussion awareness and education among youth coaches, referees, parents and players
- Instilling uniform concussion management and return-to-play protocols for youth players
- Modifying substitution rules to allow players who may have suffered a concussion during games to be evaluated without penalty.
A total of five soccer organizations along with input from the plaintiff’s counsel will reveal campaign specifics within the next few months. Still, advocates for safety changes are cheering as loudly as fans who yell after players make forehead/soccer ball contact.
"The American version of soccer is often played in the air. Our players have the height and strength for headers, and so they use them," says Jen Singer, who coached recreational and travel soccer in New Jersey for more than a decade. "Mandating that kids under 13 refrain from heading the ball just might bring this game down to the ground and improve our ball handling skills as a nation. That said, players need to know the right way to head the ball or they'll get hurt."
In 2014, Stefan Fatsis wrote a piece for Slate magazine about long-term brain injuries and heading. "Most prepubescent children aren’t capable of making the necessary preparations to head the ball; they’re just not strong enough or aware enough or coordinated enough," Fatsis wrote. "And if they do keep their eyes open and their mouths shut and strike the ball with their foreheads, their neck muscles, even if tensed, aren’t strong enough to prevent their heads from absorbing what often are elevated g-forces."
Now to convince kids the coolness factor of heading the soccer ball is way overrated. Too bad fancy footwork is harder to translate into awesome Snap Chat-worthy pixels.