From The Sidelines: Is Your Kid's Soccer Coach Following the New Header Rules?

U.S. Soccer addresses concussions by limiting heading. Find out if your child is allowed to hit with her head.

“There go a few more points off the SAT,” a friend of mine would lament from the bleachers when her 12-year-old son headed the ball during soccer games. He was playing 10 months a year for a premier-level soccer club in the Seattle area; headers had long been an important part of his game play.

Things, however, are changing. Starting this spring, official U.S. Soccer clubs and teams, including more than 3 million Youth Soccer players between ages 5 and 19, have new rules to follow:

  • No heading for children 10 and under (players at the U-11 level and below) in both practice and games

  • Players in U-12 and U-13 programs can head during games. However, they will be limited to 30 minutes of heading practice per week, with no more than 15 to 20 headers per week, according to the U.S. Soccer Concussion Initative 2016.

Those are the bare bones of the rules change, which applies to premier, select and recreational levels. Also expect to see referees awarding indirect free kicks to the opposing team if a player age 10 or younger touches the ball with his or her head during a game.

Modified substitution rules will also take effect this year; any player suspected of having a head injury can be substituted for evaluation without that substitution counting against the team’s total number of subs per game. Do note that there is no mention of a maximum number of weeks or months per year that a young player can practice headers, an important point what with more and more clubs adopting nearly year-round play.

These rule changes might be confusing at first, says Kim Calkins, technical director for Washington Youth Soccer, which oversees more than 100,000 players. She expects some soccer fans will be against the changes; we can all hear the chorus now: “We never had that rule and we turned out just fine!” But Calkins says she’s pleased with the update thus far.

“It’s addressing something we haven’t had clarification on,” she says. “We can explain it to parents, and coaches will understand that we can’t teach headers at a particular age.”

It’s all about safety, adds Mike Hoyer, deputy executive director for the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO).

“These rules are about reducing opportunities for injury,” he says. “In the 8-, 9- and 10-year-old age groups, it’s rare for them to want to head the ball anyway. They’re not ready with their motor skills and parents see the hesitancy.”

I happened to have some 9- and 10-year old soccer friends over at my house recently and so conducted a quick poll. All agreed there isn’t a ton of heading going on in their games but while some kids avoid heading at all costs, others relish it.

“I love to head the ball!” said 10-year-old Zach Geisner, a competitive soccer player. His mother, a psychologist at the University of Washington, rolled her eyes. “I cringe every time and can’t wait for this rule to take effect,” she said.

Richard Hepworth, a soccer coach friend in Idaho, agrees that typically, younger players are reluctant to head the ball. “Usually they stand there with their feet planted, eyes closed and the ball falls down on the top of their head,” he says. Hepworth emphasizes the need to learn and practice proper technique. “At some point kids will go from not heading the ball to competitive heading, so there’s a need to be practical.” 

In our litigious society perhaps it’s no surprise that these new rules came about after a 2014 lawsuit filed on behalf of players and parents. While the case is several years old, the resulting guidelines are so new some local coaches may not have yet learned the specifics. In emails I’ve received from our family’s two soccer clubs, I’ve yet to see anything about the new rules limiting headers. 

The science is new. Ten years ago we were never talking about this.

So how concerned should I, a parent of three soccer-loving children, be? Do headers really cause brain damage? 

“The science is new. Ten years ago we were never talking about this,” says Dr. Samuel R. Browd, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital and medical director of the hospital’s Sports Concussion Program.

The trickiest question to answer, he says, is what damage comes from routine headers where a player doesn’t suffer a concussion. There isn’t much data out there about these “subconcussive” hits. “It’s hard to measure because, by definition, people are not symptomatic from these hits,” the doctor says.

Of course, soccer isn’t the only sport dealing with concussions. The recent Will Smith movie “Concussion” got Hollywood abuzz about this problem as related to football. While Dr. Browd chafes at “science occurring in the media,” he applauds the change in culture around head injury awareness. Things are changing, he says, in “a substantial and positive way.” 

That’s good news because research shows concussions are commonplace in soccer. A 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found concussion rates in high school girl soccer players at 4.5 per 10,000 “athletic exposures” (a.k.a. game or practice). The rate for high school boys was 2.8 per 10,000. Heading, however, wasn’t behind the majority of concussions; instead, for 69 percent of boys and 51 percent of girls, contact with another player led to the recorded concussion. Heads smashing heads — it’s excruciating to watch from the sidelines and it seems to be the biggest risk to kids on the pitch.

Another pressing question: Is there such a thing as a magical age where heading becomes safe? Soccer star Brandi Chastain has advocated banning all headers before 14 years of age. That age gets a lot of play; last year, the Concussion Legacy Foundation published a report saying that delaying the introduction of heading until age 14 would “conservatively prevent over 100,000 concussions among middle school-aged players.”

Dr. Browd isn’t convinced. “Why is it not 12 or 16 or 18? It’s not science that backs up a particular age,” he says. “The skull is starting to get appropriately thick by the early teen years, but we also know the brain is still developing into the late 20s.”

So the verdict: unclear. But as a soccer mom, I fall on the side of supporting any rule change that will potentially protect my kid’s gray matter. Until the science of these contact sports catches up to their popularity, I have no problem telling my 9-year-old to get his head in… wait, make that out of the game.

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