If you have children who play soccer, one question worth asking is whether your children should be heading the ball.
Effects of heading the ball in soccer
The long-term effects of repetitive headers in soccer 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.
It doesn’t just appear to be changes found on MRI. The researchers found that players who headed a ball more than 1800 times per year had poorer memory scores than did players who headed the ball less often.
While 1800 headers per year might sound high, year-round soccer players who practice several times per week can reach that number quickly.
Impacts from heading in soccer
There could be two ways to decrease the number of head impacts from headers. The most drastic involves eliminating heading in soccer below a certain age. Some proponents have pushed for eliminating it below the age of 14. Others suggest younger ages. Instead, the athletes could learn proper footwork and focus on teamwork. Then as they get older, they can learn proper techniques for heading when those impacts are less damaging.
Another option would be to eliminate drills in practices that involve players heading the ball over and over. Maybe they can practice proper technique for headers for a few minutes and then they move to other drills. They can do a small amount of heading each day without 20 or 30 minutes that can make young athletes feel dizzy or cause headaches.
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There is still much we need to learn about the long-term effects of headers in soccer. Much of the evidence about risks of chronic brain damage fails to account for athletes that have suffered concussions during their careers. Regardless, it is important that parents, coaches and young soccer players weigh the risks of heading the ball at a young age against the benefits.