Heading the ball a major health risk in young soccer players

Twenty-five per cent of emergency department visits by soccer players younger than 19 involved concussions or minor head injuries, according to a report by Child Health BC.

Canadian officials are debating their next move after the U.S. Soccer Federation banned heading the ball in youth soccer in early November.  The USSF guidelines forbid children 10 years old or younger from heading a soccer ball and for children 11 and 13 years old heading is only allowed during games.

There are those who are in favour of implementing a similar rule here in Canada, with a good deal of medical evidence to suggest that heading soccer balls is problematic.

“There have been numerous studies on adult soccer players, with MRIs showing the damages in the brain caused by several years of heading soccer balls,” said Dr. Jack Taunton at the Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre.

Medical experts, like Taunton, agree that children are particularly susceptible to concussions and their lingering effects. He said coaches must “focus on strengthening the neck and correct coaching to ensure proper development.”

Taunton acknowledged the work done by Hockey Canada and their body-checking ban in PeeWee hockey (under-13 age division). The ban was implemented at the start of the 2013-2014 season.

The decision was applauded by the Canadian Pediatric Society. In a press release from May 2013, the organization’s Andrew Lynk said that “this evidence-based decision puts brain safety first, and will enhance player development by focusing on fundamental skills, fun and lifetime fitness.”

David Ousted, the Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper and father of three, would like to see a new rule in place.

Vancouver Whitecaps player Robert Earnshaw prepares to head a ball against the Portland Timbers at BC Place Nov. 8.

“I think it would be a good rule here in Canada. It protects the kids and they can develop the skills later on anyway,” said the Danish star.

However, there are those who prefer an educational stance instead of a ban.

“Our stance is one of education rather than regulatory at this point,” said Peter Lonergan, the marketing and communications officer for the B.C. Soccer Association. He said several people have consulted the association in light of the USSF decision.

Educating people on how to identify and prevent head injuries will lead to a better environment for athletes of all ages, said Lonergan.

“BC Soccer is also enhancing its concussion/head injury protocol to be more of a complete concussion management plan that the entire BC Soccer membership can implement.”

Ryan and Sue Conder, parents of two young soccer players in Vancouver, are also trying to focus on prevention.

“The important aspect in heading the ball is knowing the technique behind it,” said Ryan Conder. His wife agreed. “Our kids grew up in Europe and one of the first things they learned in soccer was how to head the ball correctly,” she said.

There are no official guidelines in Canada regarding heading a soccer ball. However, the Canadian Soccer Association website does have a concussion protocol.

Bob Sawtell, a former international-competition referee and member of the CSA referee committee, doesn’t think there will be any changes to the Canadian association’s regulations.

“There is nothing currently on the agenda from an officiating standpoint in response to the U.S. Soccer move,” said Sawtell.

Resources are available for parents wanting to educate their children. There are also a number of different forms of head-gear on the market, along with a growing number of studies with evidence supporting a preventative approach.

By Jaione Belza Guede

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