Heading ban for 10-year-olds and younger makes sense, but important concussion questions remain

By Mike Woitalla

In recent years, new science has provided clearer information on the dangers of concussions and studies have revealed their frequency in youth soccer. It seemed that it would be only a matter of time before the game’s governing bodies seriously addressed the issue.

U.S. Soccer did so on Monday. It issued a joint statement with the plaintiffs of the Mehr class-action lawsuit and the American defendants, who included U.S. Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer, AYSO and U.S. Club Soccer.

The Mehr et al v. FIFA et al lawsuit did not ask for monetary damages, but sought the establishment of a medical monitoring program for players with concussions and head injuries and the implementation of "return to play" guidelines, a change in substitution rules, and restrictions on heading by players under the age of 17.

Last May, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in Oakland, Calif., dismissed the lawsuit, citing "fairly incomprehensible" claims. Hamilton dismissed the claims against FIFA “with prejudice,” which prevented Mehr from bringing them again against FIFA. But she ruled that claims against the U.S. defendants could be brought again if the plaintiffs showed they had standing.

But let’s be clear. Something had to be done, regardless of how this lawsuit played out -- given the information we now have on concussions and the possibility of future dangers arising from heading.

“The development of a player safety initiative was under way before the current lawsuit was filed,” said U.S. Soccer CEO/Secretary General Dan Flynn in a statement that accompanied U.S. Soccer’s announcement of its “Player Safety Campaign,” which eliminates heading for children 10 and under, and limits the amount of heading in practice for children ages of 11 to 13.

U.S. Soccer also announced it would:

* Improve concussion awareness and education among youth coaches, referees, parents and players.

* Instill uniform concussion management and return-to-play protocols for youth players.

* Modify substitution rules to allow players who may have suffered a concussion during games to be evaluated without penalty. (For example, in leagues with subbing restrictions the temporary substitution would not count against a team’s total number of allowed substitutions. Leagues with re-entry restrictions would make an exception in cases of subbing for head-injury evaluation.)

I do not see any downside to eliminating heading for players 10 and under, nor to limiting heading for teenagers.

Neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, a leading concussion expert, said this about kids and teens being more vulnerable than adults to concussions:

“They don't have fully myelinated brains, so the nerve cells and their connections don't have the coating and insulation of adult brains. In addition, they have disproportionately weak necks compared to adults, and disproportionately large, heavy heads, so they're like bobble-head dolls. This sets them up for brain injuries that are more serious than those sustained at a later age from the same amount of force.”

From a player development point of view, there’s no convincing case that heading needs to be introduced at the early ages. In fact, the heading scenarios that most frequently occur at the lower ages come from goalkeeper punts. And those should be discouraged anyway if we’re aiming to teach kids good soccer, to keep possession, and play out of the back.

Generally in youth soccer, playing long, high balls is a short cut to getting results that undermines long-term player development.

Could it be that if children don’t learn heading at the younger ages they won’t be good at it when they’re older? It might very well be the opposite. They may develop better technique if it’s introduced when their neck muscles are stronger.

One common response to this issue is that proper heading technique prevents concussions. But is there proof of that, especially when it comes to children? There have been studies that indicate the frequency of heading a ball could have a harmful effect on the brain – and for all we know, that heading was done with “proper” technique. With all the unknowns, why risk it with young children during a time in their soccer experience when heading simply isn’t necessary?

A big question about the decision from U.S. Soccer – made with input from “its medical science committee which includes experts in the field of concussion diagnosis and management” – is why it chose the age of 10.

Cantu’s recommendation for youth sports is: “No tackle football before age 14 … No body checking in youth hockey before age 14 … No heading in soccer before age 14.”

One reality of soccer is that it’s an international game. Americans play against the rest of the world. Implementing a heading ban through age 13 could, it may be argued, affect the USA in international competition. That’s a legitimate concern for the U.S. Soccer, but just because FIFA and other nations might not be responding to concussion science is no good reason for us not to take the lead.

Exceptions to subbing rules to allow effective evaluations for head injuries will eventually become something the rest of the world adopts, I would bet on. U.S. Soccer committing resources to educate youth coaches, referees, parents and players on concussions is just plain good.

U.S. Soccer’s “Safety Campaign” introduces nothing that will deter the progress of American soccer players. But it may very well be just a first step because there are important questions left unanswered.

Is there enough evidence as indicated by Dr. Cantu that heading should be delayed until age 14?

We will no doubt be getting more information as science advances and further studies are done.

Are there any other solutions to decreasing head injuries in soccer?

Referees being more vigilant on foul play. Coaches not training their goalkeepers to lift a knee at the opposing player. Field players being restricted from challenging goalkeepers. Discouraging punts or mortar goal kicks.

Should female soccer have different rules?

Studies have shown that girls suffer more concussions and suffer longer-lasting or more severe symptoms. A JAMA Pediatrics-published soccer study showed high school girls with a 60 percent higher rate of concussions than boys and that girls are nearly twice as likely than boys to suffer concussions from head-ball contact.

Heading is the most dangerous part of youth soccer, whether it’s the elbows that fly in an aerial battle or the heads that might clash regardless of what expert coaching the players may have had.

If simply heading the ball produces a significantly higher rate of concussions among girls than boys who are older than the 10-year-olds U.S. Soccer is protecting, does that mean that we should seriously consider different guidelines for the genders?



* * *

Eighteen years ago, Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner became the first American journalist to draw attention to growing problems surrounding soccer concussion injuries and the inevitability -- should the issue not be addressed -- of serious legal complications.

“There is clearly a lot more to come on this subject,” says Gardner. “U.S. Soccer’s move marks the first step in a process that must quickly reach up to the pro level, where virtually every game involves at least one ugly head clash, sometimes with blood. Yet players are hardly ever removed from the game. Excuses like ‘it’s part of the game’ are no longer acceptable. If serious head injuries resulting from heading the ball are really part of the game, then the game needs a serious rethink.”

30 comments about "Heading ban for 10-year-olds and younger makes sense, but important concussion questions remain".
  1. Lonaka K, November 11, 2015 at 7:07 a.m.

    It's fine to start some where, but at the younger ages I don't think we see a whole lot of heading. Wouldn't it be better for coaches to teach the technique properly. At all ages we should see if players can receive the ball with some other parts of the body as first choice rather than depending on the header. But I think it would be better to institute a stricter penalty for reckless heading. Often it's the defender that carelessly and recklessly engage in defensive heading.

  2. stewart hayes, November 11, 2015 at 8:46 a.m.

    Thanks Mike W for the thorough review. It's not lack of technique as you say but the physiology and sex of the young, and not so young, that seems to be a defining issue. Even adults have high risk of concussion which means properly played, the game today is not safe for some participants from the long term debilitating affects of concussion. At 64 I don't head too much anymore but when I do my neck hurts. The doc says it's arthritis. Is it the result of heading soccer balls for 55 years, probably, but I'll never know for sure.

  3. ROBERT BOND, November 11, 2015 at 8:56 a.m.

    my kid bumped heads - i told him he would either wear his Storelli or play ping-pong......headgear should be mandatory! duh!!!!

  4. Mo youknow, November 11, 2015 at 8:57 a.m.

    The youth soccer and high school soccer that my boys have participated in introduced baseline testing and return to play protocols several years ago so the tail is wagging the US Soccer dog it appears. Also in regards to banning heading, I have to think this will increase the number of dangerous high kicks. If a kid in tight traffic can't head a high ball some of them are inevitably going to try to kick it. A kick to the head is more dangerous than heading a ball in that situation. I also think balls hitting kids in the head from close range kicks are more likely to happen because if a kid wants to clear a ball in traffic he can't head it, he has to kick it. Again, a ball to the head from close range is more dangerous in that situation. They really should just ban goal keeper punts and say no practicing heading with soccer balls. Make soft balls for heading training and make money too.

  5. R2 Dad replied, November 11, 2015 at 9:23 a.m.

    Great idea, but taking away keeper punts would incite the fury of crappy coaches everywhere who don't understand the value of playing out of the back.

  6. beautiful game, November 11, 2015 at 11:13 a.m.

    Youth players need to work on fundamentals and use other parts of the body to develop ball control skills. That's what lacking. As for punting the ball, in most cases the ball doesn't travel that far, so throw it out or kick pass it out. Makes more sense to possess the ball and develop softer ball control.

  7. Scott Johnson replied, November 13, 2015 at 2:08 a.m.

    You haven't watched many U11 games if you think that most 10-year-old goalies can't dropkick a ball in the opponent's half. I'm on the fence about "it's bad soccer" thing--one one side of the coin, it can deprive youth players of practice bringing the ball up while keeping it on the ground. OTOH, if your goalie can punt with accuracy into space, and you have fast wings--it's not a bad tactic, especially if you're concerned with winning rather than with the pedagogic exercise of bringing the ball up. (Goalies who can't boot the ball hard are often at a disadvantage, as opposing forwards will quickly figure this out and attempt to steal goal kicks and get a cheap goal that way...)

  8. Ric Fonseca, November 11, 2015 at 2:44 p.m.

    BAN GK PUNTS???!!! While the pundits are at it, why don't we revert to the game played in 15 min quarters, unlimited substitution, every one must play at least 50% of the time, etc. No, really, some will go for this, but since even college soccer futbol used to play four quarters, it was more disrupting for/to the flow of the game. As for heading, I do recall very clearly that we were informed and trained during the late 60's and into the early 70's of the potential head trauma for kids, and thus the overall heading-process was greatly reduced, with the instructors demanding that kids do more foot work, small sided games, keeping the ball on the ground, etc, skills that served the younger players better. That US Soccer have now moved in this direction, e.g. limiting heading, well, I feel that this type of injury has come more to the fore with the tremendous rash of concussions by football players at all levels, yet I do not see this extensively enforced in PopWarner-youth football! More on this later.

  9. Scott Johnson replied, November 13, 2015 at 2:04 a.m.

    Nobody I don't think uses quarters any more, but unlimited subbing is commonplace in youth soccer--even in premier leagues and tournaments--and the 50% rule is commonplace in rec (non-competitive) leagues.

  10. Eric Anderson, November 11, 2015 at 3:05 p.m.

    Just so you are aware, goalkeeper punting will be banned for Under-10s and younger starting in the 2017-18 season, as they encourage kids to learn to play out of the back. That is part of the small-sided initiatives introduced a few months ago.

  11. R2 Dad replied, November 12, 2015 at 11:57 p.m.

    As far as I can tell, that has not be explicitly listed--is there documentation stating that? I can't find it. On the small-sided pitches we've been using for U10, the keeper has been able to punt but not past the half-way line. They still punt, they just cant air it out. In the mean time, the coaches have not taken that to mean "playing out of the back", just that their keeper punts are limited. If the keeper doesn't pass it out to back to work up the field, the back line doesn't get the reps, the touches, the confidence. The back line gets bypassed, and another generation of defenders gets shortchanged.

  12. Bob Ashpole, November 11, 2015 at 5:24 p.m.

    Good points Mike. We needed to do more to protect players with actual or suspected concussions. Regarding heading, I agree that there is no development downside to banning heading at U10 and below, even though there is no information showing any benefit from the ban. My only concern is this type of useless, political rulemaking never satisfies a zealot, rather it encourages them to push for more stringent unnecessary rules. It is bad politics. What next, helmets? Banning punts for under U10 is really a non-issue because either the format does not have keepers or else the fields are too small for punts to be practical. Throws are the better choice. Will they ban long throws too? Long passes and balls are not an evil. No successful adult system is based exclusively on short passes. Even Barca tiki taki gave priority to long passes. Short passes were used to set up the long pass. I have a real problem with restricting youth to playing balls on the ground, which seems to be the point of every new initiative by USSF. The objective is player development, not training a youth team to play in a preferred adult tactical style. If players are not allowed to do anything other than play balls on the ground, they will never develop any other skills or tactics. I suppose the plan is to have players develop the missing skills during their teenage years when they should be learning team tactics. As for playing out of the back, in a small sided game there is no back to play out of, which is the development advantage of small sided games. Unfortunately some coaches faced with a 5v5 game will immediately quarter the field and assign players individual zones to play in. Don't get me started on clubs that think U-Littles should play in an adult possession style.

  13. James Madison, November 11, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.

    Based on 45 years of coaching youth soccer, my observations are:

    1. Players 9 years old and younger almost never even try to head a ball.

    2. It's only the rare 10 or 11-year-olds who heads or even tries to head a ball, and that usually is a ball that has hit the ground and has rebounded over their head, such that their heads are meeting a ball with little momentum; it's almost as if they are heading a ball out of their hands.

    3. In line with the foregoing, AYSO does not teach heading below U-12, and, with only two or, at the most, three training sessions a week, there is precious little time even at this age to include enough teaching and practice of proper heading to stimulate its use in matches. What one does is train those who try so they head correctly.

    4. It's only at U-14 that players typically want to head, such that this is where learning to head correctly becomes critical.

  14. Graham Sanders, November 12, 2015 at 7:21 a.m.

    I've never encouraged young kids to head the ball but have taught them technique witha soft plastic ball.

    However, banning long kicks is nonsense. I'm all for playing the ball out from the back but if the other team presses well, you are forced to play long - just watch a few games from Europe.

    With all these proposed "changes" the game is taking on a completely different look.

    And if we really want to protect the children, maybe we should ban running and play the game at a walk.

  15. ROBERT BOND, November 12, 2015 at 10 a.m.

    not one other advocate for headgear! Wonder if USS will respond to my Q..........

  16. beautiful game, November 12, 2015 at 10:11 a.m.

    Fact, there are more unskilled players participating in youth soccer than players with natural skills and potential. This also applies to a majority of high school age players. You bloggers sound as if this 'youth no heading rule' is a detriment to the future development of players. Nonsense, the good ones will develop in stages like all athletes do. The can't miss talent will only make it through solid coaching techniques. So, let's not get overheated about 'heading' and 'punting' when it matters least.

  17. R2 Dad replied, November 13, 2015 at 12:05 a.m.

    You don't know what you're talking about. Only some potential is physical or skill-based--the other is soccer IQ-related. The world's best players look like accountants. Would you be able to identify and develop an Ozil or Iniesta based on observing their U10 "skill and potential"?

  18. Nancy Carr-swaim, November 12, 2015 at 10:20 a.m.

    Robert, I'm with you on kids wearing headgear! Why not? They're inexpensive and allow players to head the ball when taught properly. Also, adult players could wear them as well since they play with more force and momentum, thus increasing their chances of concussion. No need to change the game.

  19. ROBERT BOND replied, November 12, 2015 at 10:27 a.m.

    thanks, Nancy-my kid does not even notice it-the other parents like it, but the kids don't want to "look different"...fortunately, mine is a non-conformist, & enjoys that part since he does not even notice the Storelli on, & he looks "wicked", esp tween the sticks...

  20. Richard Brown replied, November 12, 2015 at 4:02 p.m.

    I have not seen head gear in a while. Is there a space between the shell and the head. That separates if not it like not wearing anything.

    If not it is a scam even if it was you can't sue the manufacturer if you get hurt while wearing it in any sport.

    Girl are apt to get concussions because they don't have strong neck and a weak core and they have not learned how to head correctly or how to protect the space they are playing in.

    No more free kicks to 13? No more defensive walls either?

  21. Bob Ashpole, November 12, 2015 at 11:24 a.m.

    I am glad that "headgear" gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. IMO its potential to reduce concussions is insignificant. High school physics.

  22. ROBERT BOND replied, November 12, 2015 at 2:37 p.m.

    gasp! somebody tell the American football, lacrosse, & hockey players!

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, November 12, 2015 at 5:27 p.m.

    I have seen no one wearing a hard helmet in soccer. If that is what you are proposing, that is a terrible mistake. You should be aware that in all three sports you name, players wear extensive pads not just helmets. The problem with helmets is to design something that protects without endangering others at the same time.

  24. Richard Brown, November 12, 2015 at 8:59 p.m.

    They used to sell a padded jock for kids playing soccer. You could buy it in any soccer store here. They don't make it anymore.

    It was not the one you slip the plastic shell into like in American football.

    I thought the padded jock was a good idea for kids.

  25. ROBERT BOND, November 13, 2015 at 10:16 a.m.

    righto! no reason any newfangled tech can help the most commonly played sport.......don't really follow hockey and lacrosse, unaware adding helmets increased injuries..........seeems studies could see if the Storelli line increased, decreased, or had no effect on injuries, but rats, Bob, if nothing helps, will steer my kid to rugby, they have leather balls(wait-have a friend whose dtr play u21 USA rugby)......

  26. beautiful game, November 13, 2015 at 12:51 p.m.

    R2Dad...I beg to differ with u. Instinctive players with a natural skill set can be identified as early as U-10; although there is no guarantee of a professional career. I refereed a U-10 game and first saw Giuseppe Rossi whose talents were jaw dropping; high soccer IQ, awesome technique, and all business with passion on the pitch. Never wandered into pressure, kept cool, and made things happen. Special players can be identified early, it's the proper coaching that matters at U-15 and above.

  27. R2 Dad replied, November 14, 2015 at 2:12 p.m.

    Given the vast numbers of players in this country, you'd therefor think all the "cream" that rose to the top would all have these instinctive traits. Unfortunately, they do not. Why is it that only a few do? What happened to the rest of those instinctive players? There are thousands of them out there, many hispanic. WRT coaching from U15 and up, most top academies in europe have top coaches at the U8-U12 level where technique and good habits are first formed--usually it's too late by U15, and maybe that's also part of the problem since all the "good" coaches want to coach the olders.

  28. Pete K, November 18, 2015 at 10:31 a.m.

    A padded jock is a no brainer for soccer but like headgear young players wont wear them because "nobody else does". I think the designs are already out there for headgear to reduce injuries. I suspect it might be like hockey helmets, slow to adopt but once required, it became a no brainer.

    I have heard high school in Princeton New Jersey has required headgear for soccer. I just don't know if they have reduced injuries.

  29. Richard Brown, November 18, 2015 at 4:51 p.m.

    I don't think you can buy a padded jock any more. Parents get their kids the jock with the plastic slide in the cup

    Not many none soccer people know that adult player just wears a regular jock.

  30. Richard Brown, November 18, 2015 at 4:54 p.m.

    My grand daughter 7 years old takes Karate. When they start to spar they wear head gear. No suspension head gear. You don't see concussions yet because they just don't hit hard enough yet.

    Later is another story

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