Wellesley United Soccer Club Editorial
On November 10th, 2015 CNN news reported that U.S. Soccer, the governing body for the sport in the United States, announced that there should be no heading for any players age 10 and under, while heading should be limited only to practice for those ages 11 to 13.
The declaration comes on the heels of a 2014 lawsuit filed against FIFA (the governing body of association football), U.S. Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer, the American Youth Soccer Organization, U.S. Club Soccer and the California Youth Soccer Association. Still, if it's up to U.S. Soccer, all relevant programs around this country will take the same step.
Researchers usually refer about a vulnerability window which they believe occur between 9 and 12 years of age. This is considered the time in which peak neuro-developmental milestones are achieved. Development of the regions of the brain responsible for memory, attention and thinking speed as well as maturation of brain cells and blood flow are considered to be highest in those years. Using scientific terms, peak amygdalar and hippocampal volume, regional peak gray matter volumes, regional cortical thickness, microstructural maturation of the genu and splenium of the corpus callosum, peak myelination rate, peak cerebral blood flow, and beginning of cerebral glucose metabolism decline are reported.
Safety should be a priority in recreational sports activities, so youth soccer organizations will have to accept the new recommendations within the limits of what is realistically possible. The rules of the game have not been yet modified and it is impossible to make children liable for elevating the ball, which can happen anytime even if they don't mean to. In any human activity, there is an inherent risk of injury. Unless you don't play or the nature of the game is changed substantially, there is always a possibility of injury that parents and players need to take into account and weigh before signing into a program.
It is well known that players learn techniques better when they are younger as long as their cognitive abilities allow them to understand instructions. For these reasons, it is very important to adjust the methods used to teach the soccer heading to the player’s age. For example teaching appropriate technique with a balloon is very different than 500 headings in a 30 minute drill with a number 5 soccer ball, the latter being a method used for competitive training at the level of college. Our curriculum does not have any practices dedicated to full heading. As observations from college or professional player practices might not be applicable to our younger children players, it is important to take a common sense approach that puts safety above everything else.
In summary there is not enough data to define with certainty what would be the long-term effects of recreational soccer heading at particular age-groups. However in light of the new mandate by one of the major USA Youth soccer organizations, and the possibility of legal actions that may derive from it, we strongly recommend to our coaches, players and community in general to be cautious, play smart, avoid injuries if possible without affecting your joy and passion for the game. Specifically, we encourage the elimination of heading for children 10 and under and limitation of heading in practice for children between the ages of 11 and 13. We will implement these recommendations in our guidelines, emphasize them with coaches, referees and most importantly our players.
Alcy R. Torres, MD and Edip Gurol MD
Medical and Concussion Consultants and Board Members