Earlier this month the United States Soccer Federation outlined plans to stop children aged ten and under from heading footballs. The plans also intended to restrict heading for children between the ages of 11 and 13 to matches only.
The introduction of the ban was brought about by a lawsuit in America with a group of young footballers, and their parents, suing FIFA over the risks from concussion. The lawsuit did not seek monetary damages but called for a medical monitoring programme instead.
Football has long been criticized for its attitude towards concussion. The case of Hugo Lloris being allowed to continue playing for Tottenham, after he was knocked unconscious in a game against Everton in 2013, highlighted a degree of negligence and new concussion protocols were introduced the following season.
But are we doing enough on this side of the pond? Should a ban along similar lines as those implemented by US Soccer be introduced here? Or is it an overreaction?
Dr Michael Grey, a leading expert in Motor Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham’s School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, has been one of the leading advocates over a ban on heading a football for children.
“Children should not be heading the ball. We don't know at what age children's necks become strong enough to withstand the movement of the head when the head is struck by the ball,” told the Daily Telegraph in 2014.
“Some of my colleagues have suggested [a ban until the age of] 14, but I really think it is individual.
“In addition, the brain starts to shake and rotates when the head is struck by the ball.
“The brain bounces back and forth and it is the impact of the brain against the inside of the skull that causes additional damage.”
However, not everyone agrees with an outright ban. Following the news out of America, I contacted Headway, the brain injury association, which has a proactive concussion in sport campaign ongoing. Luke Griggs, Director of Communications, issued the following statement on behalf of the organisation:
“Headway,the brain injury association, believes there is currently insufficient evidence on the risk of brain injury from heading modern, lightweight footballs to justify a similar ban in the UK at this stage.
“There is no doubt that we know a great deal more about concussion today than we did five or ten years ago, and we're slowly beginning to see a cultural change in the way that head injuries are dealt with in sport.
“A great deal more work is needed, however, to ensure that all sports, at all levels, take concussion seriously and adopt an 'if in doubt, sit it out' approach.
“A number of small-scale studies have been published or are ongoing at present addressing the issue of sub-concussive blows, but we are yet to see scientific consensus on whether there is a link between heading a football and neurological damage.
“While neurological experts are getting better at identifying smaller changes in the brain following impact, the question remains do these minor changes have a long-term impact?
“It is vital that this research continues and more studies are conducted in order to answer that question.
“Until robust evidence is presented to categorically show that heading a football can damage one's brain, it is important that the focus remains on ensuring all those involved in sport are aware of and strictly follow concussion protocols.”
Rather than an outright ban, it would seem that an ‘if in doubt, sit it out’ plan of action would be more practical, something that is already on display at various clubs around the country.
Graham Mearns, Chairperson of Monifieth Ladies FC, outlines the approach at his club.
“The club policy is now agreed that the player will be removed for at least 10 minutes after any injury which requires the game to be stopped (particularly head injuries),” he remarked.
“As to the banning of headers all together, I’m still undecided. In reality most players under ten will not head the ball and at Monifieth we try to play the ball on the ground as much as possible and so it only comes to goal line clearances when the ball may be headed.”
Of course you can always further limit concussion risk with regards to the equipment used in practice, something highlighted by Ferry Athletic coach, Charlie Stott.
“The balls being used are very important. There is no need for the use of heavier leather match balls for a continuous repetitive drill.
“Sponge balls or lighter indoor footballs would suffice as long as the basics being coached are still being learnt. Then in a match situation the kids can head the ball properly on much fewer occasions than is required.”
Youth Football Scotland decided to run a Twitter poll on the matter, posing the question: ‘Do you agree or disagree with the US Soccer plans to stop children aged ten and under heading footballs?’ 335 votes were cast. To say the result was conclusive would be something of an understatement, with 14% agreeing and an overwhelming 86% disagreeing.
Do you agree or disagree with the US Soccer plans to stop children aged 10 and under heading footballs?— YFS (@yfst) November 13, 2015
So do we need a ban? You would have to say no. Concussion in football has been somewhat ostracized in the past, but we have reached a point where it has become one of the key medical issues being discussed and researched, exactly as it should be.
Evidence at present is insufficient to bring about a ban but implementing common sense is the most vital and practical solution to minimize the risk of a child suffering a concussion. If there is any doubt, sit out the game, or training, and use foam, or lighter balls where you can. With the implementation of common sense everybody wins.
If you have any queries about concussion, or other brain injuries, click here for the Headway website: https://www.headway.org.uk