Heads up: New rules ban young soccer players from heading the ball

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     China forward Yang Li and U.S. midfielder Morgan Brian vie for a head ball. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

    China forward Yang Li and U.S. midfielder Morgan Brian vie for a head ball. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

    Michael Pellegrino plays midfield for the Philadelphia Union Academy under 14 team. It’s the most elite soccer team in the area, and many of its players will go on to play college and even professional soccer. It’s competitive, and last year, Pellegrino got two concussions.

    “Once I was going up for a header and I got hit in the back of the head and then the other one, I fell backwards and landed on the back of my head,” Pellegrino said.

    New guidelines released earlier this month from the U.S. Soccer Federation aim to curb concussions in the sport by banning headers for players age 10 and under and limiting them in practice for players aged 11 to 13. They also change the substitution rule, so that players leaving the field because of a head injury will not count as a substitution.

    For some, this may come as a surprise. Soccer isn’t usually thought of as a dangerous sport. At least not compared to football, which still accounts for the most sports-related head injuries. But soccer is a close second, and the rate of concussions for female soccer players at the collegiate level is actually a tad higher than for male football players. In raw numbers, more than 45,000 high school soccer players sustained concussions in 2010—more than baseball, basketball and wrestling combined.

    This is the figure a group of parents in California cited when they filed a class-action lawsuit last year against U.S. Soccer and a handful of other soccer organizations including the sport’s international governing body, FIFA. They claimed the organizations failed to treat and monitor head injuries and called for changes to the game.

    The new rules issued by U.S. Soccer settle the suit (a judge dismissed the case against FIFA earlier saying it had no standing), and the organization said they would release a comprehensive safety initiative in the next few weeks, which includes return-to-play protocols and education programs for coaches, players, parents and referees. U.S. Soccer says they’ve been working on these parts of the initiative long before the lawsuit was filed.

    Neuropsychologist Dr. Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, the director of the Sports Concussion Center of New Jersey, says the new rules on headers are a step in the right direction but may not go far enough.

    “It’ll probably help, but it’s not going to solve the problem however, because most concussions do not occur from headers per se, but from collisions,” Moser said. “Here in our practice I would say that most of the concussions happen because of collisions—head to head, person to person, knee to head.”

    According to one study, one third of concussions for boys and a quarter for girls were related to headers, but it’s very rarely the ball that causes the injury. For example, soccer fans will remember the nasty collision between USA’s Morgan Brian and Germany’s Alexandra Popp during the Women’s World Cup when the two players slammed heads going up for the same ball.

    Not all are happy with the decision. Tommy Wilson, director of the Philadelphia Union Academy and a former pro footballer himself, says the new rules do little to improve safety while also limiting his ability to develop great players like Pellegrino.

    “Players have to be trained to head the ball properly,” Wilson said. “It’s a skill of the game. Players in the U.S. are behind. We are behind the Frances and Spains and Germanys of this world . . . so if we neglect one of the most important skills in the game, the teaching of that, then we’ll fall further behind.”

    He said he likes the change to the substitution rule and the new medical guidelines—his academy already has a team of medical professionals standing by to diagnose and treat head injuries. But he thinks the new rules on headers are an overreaction and misinformed. He says players need to learn the right way to do headers—keeping your eyes open, making contact the forehead, tightening core muscles—to avoid injuries.

    “It would be, in my opinion, more important to teach the proper technique at a younger age as opposed to banning it,” Wilson said.

    U.S. Soccer doesn’t have control over most teams at the local level, so these new rules only apply to youth national teams and development academies like Wilson’s affiliated with U.S. Soccer. But, coaches tell me, other teams will most likely follow suit.

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