Former women’s soccer stars push to eliminate heading in youth soccer

She might be remembered for ripping off her jersey after scoring the winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Fifteen years later, Brandi Chastain aims for another ambitious goal – reducing brain trauma in young soccer players.

Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer (PASS) Campaign

Heading soccer young childrenChastain and former teammates Cindy Parlow Cone and Joy Fawcett have partnered with leading concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu to educate parents and coaches about the dangers of concussions among youth soccer players. The Legacy Institute (SLI) and the Santa Clara Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE) have teamed up to create the Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer (PASS) Campaign. One of the goals promoted on the campaign’s website (SaferSoccer.org) and through the Twitter hashtag #SaferSoccer is to discourage heading among children.

“As a professional, and now a parent and coach, I believe that the benefits of developing heading skills as children are not worth the thousands of additional concussions that youth soccer players will suffer. As a parent, I won’t allow my children to head the ball before high school, and as a coach I would prefer my players had focused solely on foot skills as they develop their love of the game. I believe this change will create better and safer soccer,” Chastain argues in a press release for the PASS Campaign.

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Recognize that concussions occur in sports other than football

Increased attention on repetitive heading in soccer

The long-term effects of repetitive heading of a soccer ball and whether that activity can cause brain injury have come under more scrutiny in recent years. Scientists have estimated that the average soccer header delivers forces equivalent to those from a boxer’s punch.

Over time, those forces might take a cumulative toll. A 2013 study found changes in the white matter of the brains of players who headed the ball more than 885 to 1550 times per year.

Former soccer player Pat Grange developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. After he died in 2012, Dr. Ann McKee examined his brain and found extensive damage that she believes led to his ALS. Grange was first soccer player confirmed to have developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Also read:
Repetitive heading in soccer: Does it cause brain damage after all?
Are Abby Wambach’s headers dangerous to emulate?

Repetitive blows to the head especially harmful to children

Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine and Sports Legacy Institute medical director, argues that blows to the brain can be especially detrimental to younger athletes. In the press release, Cantu notes, “Studies show that at least 30% of concussions in soccer are caused by heading a ball or attempting to head a ball and colliding with another player, and evidence is mounting from studies of boxers and football players that the younger one is exposed to repetitive brain trauma, the greater the risk of later life consequences. I have been forced to retire far too many young athletes with post-concussion syndrome due to having suffered multiple concussions prior to high school, and this is a clear opportunity to make soccer safer without hurting the game.”

More and more sports are evolving to try to protect their young players. US Lacrosse has adjusted its rules in recent years to curb hits to the head for youth players. USA Hockey recently banned checking in ice hockey below the age of 13. Even in football, some are calling for the implementation of hit counts, similar to pitch count restrictions used in youth baseball.

Many soccer leagues restrict headers for kids under the age of 10.

Also read:
Are soccer headers equal to punches to the head?
Would neck strengthening prevent brain damage in young soccer players?

Would young players suffer on the field by eliminate heading in youth soccer?

Will eliminating heading negatively impact the development of young players? Cindy Parlow Cone, who retired from soccer due to post-concussion syndrome and who says she will donate her brain to research after her death, says no.

“With good coaching, heading skills can be learned during the high school years. Up until the high school age, the focus should be on coordination, technical skills and spatial awareness. Delaying the teaching of heading skills, while still preparing players for heading by teaching jumping and landing and strengthening the neck, not only will help make the sport safer but also is developmentally appropriate.”

Next steps for leagues, coaches and parents?

More soccer leagues will have to wrestle with the idea of eliminating heading from the game entirely for kids under a certain age. Coaches will have to decide if they should remove long sessions of heading drills from practices. And parents will have to decide if they should look for youth leagues and teams that remove heading from the sport.