(Editor’s note: The following story was written by Amanda Atwell for Reporting Texas (http://reportingtexas.com), news and features from the University of Texas’ School of Journalism, and is reprinted here with permission.)
Lindsey Meyer has played soccer since she was 4 years old. The midfielder for the University of Texas at Austin women’s team has never suffered a concussion from heading the ball.
The United States Soccer Federation last November adopted new rules that ban heading in games played by children. Meyer says she couldn’t disagree more: the new rule, she fears, could hurt the development of talented players, and could cause players to be more afraid of heading than they already are.
Meyer and other critics of the ban say it will delay the instruction of proper heading technique. She said it might dissuade young players from wanting to use heading when they get older, because they think it’s unsafe. Some critics say the ban could factor into youth-game strategies that could undermine the integrity of the game.
Heading, in which players redirect an oncoming ball with their heads, is a key element of soccer. But it means that players’ heads come into contact with balls at high speeds, potentially causing concussions. Opinions on the ban are divided in the soccer world. Supporters such as Brandi Chastain, a former U.S. Women’s National Team member believe heading doesn’t need to be taught under the age of 14, and that younger children should be learning basic foot skills and the foundations of soccer.
The change follows a 2014 class action lawsuit filed against U.S. Soccer and FIFA in California by parents demanding a change in how the sport handles concussions. The lawsuit was dropped after U.S. Soccer adopted the new rules, which prohibit players under age 10 from heading the ball and limits heading to practice for players 11 to 13. In a statement last November, U.S. Soccer said changes to the youth game to limit concussions were in the works long before the lawsuit.
“In constructing the concussion component, U.S. Soccer sought input from its medical science committee which includes experts in the field of concussion diagnosis and management, as well as from its technical advisors, and worked with its youth members to develop a true consensus-based program,” U.S. Soccer CEO General Dan Flynn said.
Meyer, a 22-year-old senior who grew up in Coppell, sides with critics who say banning heading at a young age could cause players to fear heading later on in their soccer careers, when the practice becomes an essential part of the game. Meyer said she thinks the rule could limit the development of players’ ability to head the ball – a skill that many struggle with even after years of practice.
“I have collegiate friends that hate heading the ball,” Meyer said. “And if they had this rule when they were young, they probably for sure would not head the ball now.”
Paul Gallagher, a North Texas youth soccer coach and the founder of the Odyssey Soccer Club, said he doesn’t believe the regulation will have a significant effect on player’s skill development. Gallagher focuses on developing young players’ footwork at his twice-a-week practices.
“Our time as a coach is a lot more useful spent working on their feet and not on their head at 10 years of age,” Gallagher said. “You build a foundation of foot skills and tactics, and everything else can be built on top of that.”
But Gallagher said he thinks some coaches might exploit the new rule to help their teams, depending on how it’s enforced. If a game is stopped because a player headed the ball and the other team got possession, teams could try to force opponents to head the ball to gain an advantage.
“If the rule is that a player can’t head the ball, coaches could tell their players to throw the ball towards [opponents’] heads,” Gallagher said. He said some coaches might think, “We throw the ball right at them; if the player heads the ball, we get a PK (penalty kick). If they duck, well, then we’re in behind them anyway.”
Sarah Fields, an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, specializes in sports-related injuries. She conducted a study on how heading the ball affects high-school soccer players, and the results don’t support the new rule.
“While a large portion of concussions occur during the act of heading, the mechanism or cause, far more frequently than the ball, was another player,” such as elbows to the face or colliding with another player’s head, Fields said.
Players more often get concussions from elbows to the face or colliding with another player’s head. The increasingly aggressive nature was to blame for concussions – not the contact with the ball itself.
Discouraging heading could lead to players not being trained to execute them properly. That, combined with increasingly aggressive play, could result in injuries. Fields doesn’t completely disagree with the rule, but said tighter refereeing — such as calling more fouls — could have a bigger impact on reducing injuries.
“I think not knowing what you’re doing puts you at a greater risk, and it puts your opponent at a greater risk,” Fields said. “You go up with your eyes shut, then you’re panicked and you flail. You’re going to hit somebody, and nothing good is going to come of that.”
Meyer, the Texas midfielder, said heading is a crucial component of the game and training should start early.
“Heading is something you need to learn at a young age, because it’s so important to the game of soccer,” she said.