BY DR. KAREN LATIMER
I WIN, and I am not above gloating. U.S. Soccer, the nation's governing body for the sport, is limiting heading for kids 13 and under, and is taking it out of practice and games completely for kids younger than 11. From a medical and mom perspective, simply "Woo Hoo!"
For years I have been pointing out the insanity of teaching kids to hit solid objects with the most important part of their body.
Surrounded by soccer-heads, I have plenty of opportunities to draw attention to what I have always seen as a big problem. My husband played in college and now coaches, my five kids play, a couple of them six days a week, and soccer is always on our TV. From the sidelines, when I see a "great header" or a great challenge in the air, and everyone else is applauding, I am cringing. As a doctor, my advice instinctively is, and should be, protect your brain at all costs. And yet, on the soccer field, my children are often doing just the opposite.
I love the game, but I never played, which I suppose, to my family, makes my opinions about the sport less valuable. I have posed the question to my husband many times. "Why do they need to head the ball when they are so young?" His answer is usually something like, "Because it is a really important part of the game, and when done correctly does not cause concussion." My response to that is, "When do children ever do anything correctly, and, serious head injury notwithstanding, when is it ever a good idea to hit something repeatedly with your head?" Actually, now that I think about it, why am I asking this of someone who spent the better part of his life taking headers?
Finally, a more authoritative voice than mine has spoken. On Monday, U.S. Soccer announced its players will not learn to head the ball until they are 11, and the development of the skill will be limited until they are 14. This will initially affect only its own Youth National Teams and Development Academy, but the hope is soccer programs throughout the country will follow suit. This could potentially protect the more than 3 million children who play soccer nationwide.
After football, girls' soccer records the second highest number of concussions, followed by boys' soccer and then girls' basketball. Reportedly, a third of these concussions are from heading. A young, immature brain is especially vulnerable to injury for a variety of physical and neurologic reasons. The weakness of the muscles of the head and neck further contribute to the potential for head injury in young players. Concussion awareness is a hot topic, and I think we can all agree, concussion = bad. But, what about the accumulation of repetitive small injuries? Do we really need immediate and severe symptoms to identify an action as dangerous?
When learning to head the ball, a young athlete can hit the ball with her head a hundred times in one practice session, not all of them "correctly." Her brain is fragile and still forming. I do not care much about the outcome of a game when health is at risk, but even if we look at it from a soccer standpoint, younger children rarely use a header productively in a game. Why not wait to incorporate this aspect of the beautiful game until it is safer, more effective and better understood?
This reminds me all too much of asking my parents about smoking when I was a child. My father, who struggled to quit said, "Everyone did it. We just didn't know it was bad for us." Incredulously, I would ask, "Did you think inhaling smoke into your lungs was good for you?" I feel the same about children slamming their head into a ball thousands of times in their youth. How can this possibly not be bad for them?
A lot of attention has been brought to sports related head injuries through football. Too many high school, college and pro players are saddled with debilitating psychological, emotional and physical handicaps directly related to head injury on the field. Men who played as kids are wondering about how much damage they did to their brain taking all those hits. Would their intelligence and their memories be better had they opted off the field? Youth football has responded, taking steps to make the game safer for kids. Why shouldn't soccer do the same?
I asked Dr. Joseph Machnik, former National Team Assistant Coach, FIFA and CONCACAF Match Commissioner and FOX TV rules analyst, who has been playing, coaching and refereeing soccer for over 50 years, what he thinks of the new rule. Turns out, not only does he agree with the decision, he beat U.S. Soccer to the punch, implementing safer guidelines at his popular nationwide camp. Machnik eliminated header training for his campers at the junior level a year ago.
He explains, "There is enough opportunity in soccer for head injury: head to ground, knee, foot or elbow to head, fists of the goalkeeper to head, head to head contact, etc. With the elimination of heading in youth soccer practice for early age players, the chance for head injury is greatly reduced. It just makes so much sense in the camp environment [and now in all U.S. Soccer youth play] to put the safety of players first and to eliminate the repeated heading of the ball and the associated risks that present themselves when challenging for a ball with the head."
He explained to me all the ways FIFA, the most important governing body in soccer, is taking steps to prevent head injury in adult athletes. Precaution at the youth level is a natural next step. Some may argue it should have been a natural precursor, but better late than never.
Dr. Machnik wonders about what damage the sport has already done. With an uncomfortably high number of soccer friends, who are still relatively young men, suffering from varying levels of dementia, he has cause to wonder. Perhaps with a little foresight and some common sense, like that shown by the recent change to the guidelines, we can not only prevent major injury, but we can protect and preserve our children's brain cells. Heaven knows they will need them a lot more than they will need the perfect header.
RELATED: See more dangers in soccer including concussions at the World Cup
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