Commentary

Brain expert explains the wisdom of USSF's heading policy for youngsters

By Mike Woitalla
@MikeWoitalla

Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the USA's leading experts on concussions in sports, responded to some of the criticisms of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s recommendations on heading in youth soccer in an interview with SI.com’s Grant Wahl.

Last week, U.S. Soccer announced that, in addition to launching a concussion awareness campaign and creating uniform concussion management and return-to-play protocols for youth players, it is recommending the elimination of heading for children 10 and under and limiting the amount of heading in practice for ages of 11 to 13.

Cantu has advocated holding off on heading until age 14, but says U.S. Soccer’s guidelines eliminate, “over a period of time hundreds of thousands of sub-concussive and concussive blows in youngsters whose brains are most vulnerable. …

“So it’s much better than what it was when they were trying to head soccer balls at ages 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. Would it be better that they not head them at 11, 12, or 13? Yes. But the fact it’s being limited in practice through those ages is better than no limitation.”

To the notion that teaching proper technique, not banning heading for young children, is a better approach, Cantu says proper technique doesn’t eliminate concussions from head-head, head-elbow or head-shoulder collisions that can occur while heading.

On limiting how much children practice heading, Cantus said:

“You can be taught in a practice situation and you can be taught with a lighter ball than a regulation soccer ball, so that the sub-concussive aspect of things can be greatly minimized. So you can still be taught some of these skills in a controlled environment where heads can’t collide. … And I think that simply backing it up to ages 11 to 13 before you start to do this is going to save a lot of concussions that otherwise would have happened -- and a lot of head trauma that otherwise would have happened.”

Must-reading: "Q&A: Dr. Robert Cantu on new U.S. Soccer youth heading, safety initiative" By Grant Wahl

* * *

A great nickname, a good comeback, and a mid-game hug

After I printed out my Sunday morning referee assignment, I told my wife, “This looks like a mismatch. The Devils vs. the Sheep.”

And on this day I wasn't dreading the adults who scream at the children during games. I looked forward to what might be shouted from the sidelines -- and wasn't disappointed.

Before the kickoff came a “Get ready to hustle, Sheep!” One dad was fond of yelling, “Get your heads up, Sheep!” When the Devils had a run of possession, one parent yelled, “Get the ball, Sheep!” -- in case the 11-year-olds hadn’t yet comprehended that aspect of the game.

But best were the screams of, “Spread out, Sheep!”

* * *

It was, in fact, an entertaining weekend of youth soccer for me. On Saturday morning, in a U-10 game, a defender got the ball close to the corner flag, passed the ball to his goalkeeper, who relayed it to a midfielder. During the sequence, the coach screamed, “Don’t pass it in the middle!”

As the midfielder dribbled into the other team's half, the boy yelled back, “It worked, didn’t it!”

* * *

And later that day, it was 6-year-old girls in the very good format of splitting rosters into two 4v4 games with small goals and no goalkeepers. Adults on the sideline made sure the ball stayed in play, by tapping it back in when it crossed the lines, so the kids got lots of action. No wasted time with throw-ins or kick-ins.

This was the last day of the fall season the kids came into with no soccer experience. Simply kicking a ball presented a major challenge at the beginning. Now they were starting to look like soccer players and obviously enjoying themselves, celebrating the goals that came more frequently now that they could dribble and kick the ball straight.

But the reminders of just how young they were came up a few delightful times, such as when one team had a 3v2 counterattack because one player kept two opponents occupied by discussing what sounded like birthday party plans. And then there was the goal that came thanks mainly to the two defenders who, for some reason, were in the middle of a hug.

9 comments about "Brain expert explains the wisdom of USSF's heading policy for youngsters ".
  1. beautiful game, November 16, 2015 at 3:11 p.m.

    Watched Tulsa v Conn in a college tournament final...I've seen much better soccer at high school level.

  2. Jack Waterbury, November 16, 2015 at 4:05 p.m.

    About a year ago I filed a similar plan and reported I had been using it for more than 10 years. When coupled with Futsal in the winter months you develop players with superior first touch and clo

    se ball control. As the players got older- 12, 13, 14 - the techniques of heading, when to head, how to compete for the ball, etc., were added. As they progressed, additional skills were introduced.

    Try it. It works!

  3. ROBERT BOND, November 17, 2015 at 8:55 a.m.

    headgear!

  4. Pete K, November 17, 2015 at 2:44 p.m.

    Robert, I agree with you and I would be completely on board with making headgear required equipment. That said, headgear is part of the solution. This new rule is also part of the solution.

    Great message board to share ideas!

  5. uffe gustafsson, November 17, 2015 at 5:17 p.m.

    Yes on head gear. We use shinn guards to protect your legs, think the brain have priority over legs and need better protection then what we have now, wich is zero.
    And much more science will happen into the construction of head gears.

  6. James Madison, November 17, 2015 at 9 p.m.

    Has anyone other than me actually watched players below the age of 10? Watch 50 U8 and U10 matches, and you will see: players don't head and they don't even try to head. On a rare occasion, if a ball bounces, a player will reach for it with his head or hers before it hits the ground a second time, i.e., when it is virtually motionlis in the air. In other words, heading is irrelevant for young players. This is why the AYSO long ago provided that heading is not taught below the U12 level.

  7. Richard Brown, November 18, 2015 at 8:03 a.m.

    When young players have a leg injury like a sprain. There are actually some doctors who advocate putting them in a hard cast. So they won't be tempted to come back and start playing again too soon. what do posters thing about that? Good idea or a crazy idea to over protect players.

    He did say proper heading does not stop concussions head to elbow, head to forearm. He should have mentioned that a player has to learn how to protect the space you are playing in, but he didn't. Why not he either does not know how or he doesn't care or both.

  8. Richard Brown, November 18, 2015 at 9:01 a.m.

    Make a real study on how many players get concussions using the head protection gear over a year. With real players who know the game and know how to protect their space to play in over a year.

    Keep track also the amount of head touches each player gets.

  9. Pete K, November 18, 2015 at 10:41 a.m.

    James, I have coached over 100 youth soccer games (below 10). I agree that heading is rare. However chesting the ball occurs even less. Hopefully the rule change encourages coaches and kids to learn to trap the ball or chest it.

    Richard B is right on target with his comment. Have a study, the headgear exists, there are sensors that record impact. There has never been a better time.

    I am all for the rule changes but the research is critical to know what solutions to pursue.

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