The long-term effects of soccer heading, or heading the ball, on the brain have been fiercely debated. One study looking at the ball’s impact on the head equated the force to that of a punch to the head. Studies looking at the players themselves and the act of heading the ball have shown conflicting data.
Concussions are increasingly recognized as a concern in soccer, especially in girls’ soccer. The effects of concussions are believed to be worse for younger soccer players as well.
One of the theories as to why soccer heading in particular would be worrisome for young soccer players is that they have less neck strength than older players. Would a cervical muscle strengthening program help protect young players from the effects of heading a soccer ball?
Effect of neck strength on soccer heading
A new study in the journal Sports Health looked at neck strength in college soccer players. Zachary Dezman, MD and colleagues measured players’ neck flexion and extension strength while they headed a soccer ball in a lab.
They found that players with balanced or symmetrical strength between their neck extension muscles and neck flexion muscles experience lower head acceleration at low ball velocities. In theory, balanced neck muscle strength might lessen the sudden flexion and extension movements the head makes during heading. Potentially it could decrease any long-term trauma on the brain.
Now it is worth pointing out that this study was performed on college athletes and not youth players. It does at least suggest, though, that there might be a role for a basic neck strengthening program as part of an overall injury prevention program in youth soccer.
Recommendations for soccer heading
Coaches and parents should also consider a number of strategies to minimize risks from heading the ball.
• Teach proper heading techniques.
• Use the correct size balls for the ages of the players and don’t over inflate them.
• Give kids two to three months away from soccer each year.
The idea of taking a few months off of soccer might seem counterproductive to parents seeking soccer achievement and advancement for the kids. But that time out of soccer can decrease the repetitive stress on the bones and joints of the lower body. It can also give these young soccer players’ brains time to rest and recover.
Dezman ZDW, Ledet EH, Kerr HA. Neck Strength Imbalance Correlates With Increased Head Acceleration in Soccer Heading. Sports Health. Published online before print March 20, 2013.