While soccer is still on the nation’s mind after the U.S. win at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, a group called The Safer Soccer campaign, which raises awareness of the risks of heading soccer balls before the age of 14, recently announced support from a list of experts that include U.S. soccer greats Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy, according to Athletic Business.
The initiative also has support from soccer legends Brandi Chastain, Cindy Parlow Cone and Joy Fawcett, decorated women's national team coach Tony DiCicco, Santa Clara University women's soccer head coach Jerry Smith, the Women's Sports Foundation, the LA84 Foundation and a dozen concussion researchers and clinicians. The goal of The Safer Soccer campaign is to educate parents, coaches, and the soccer community that delaying heading in soccer until age 14 or high school can help eliminate concussions in more vulnerable players. Current guidelines from governing body U.S. Soccer recommend introducing headers at age 10, although many coaches start earlier.
"Safer Soccer is part of the legacy I want to leave for the game," said Chastain, whose penalty kick clinched the 1999 World Cup championship and who is now a coach and a soccer mom herself. "I do not want my players, or my own children, heading the ball before 14, both for their brain health and also so that we can focus our time on foot skills, which are far more important for their soccer development. For players under 14, no headers are a no-brainer,” she said.
The issue of concussions in youth soccer was recently highlighted on a June 23rd episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO. The episode criticizes U.S. Soccer for not altering its recommendations on heading in young players despite recent research that demonstrates the practice’s potential for injury in youth participation.
Of course, a recent article in US News & World Report noted that head games may not be the only forces at work in injuries. Rougher play, particularly at the youth level, is resulting in an increased number of injuries.
A nine-year study of youth players showed that while one in four concussions studied occurred when players used their heads to hit the ball, more than half of these heading-related concussions were caused by collisions with another player rather than with the ball. These collisions included head-to-head, elbow-to-head and shoulder-to-head contact, said Dawn Comstock, a University of Colorado public health researcher who led the study.
Rough play has become more common at all levels of soccer, but it violates rules that prohibit most player-to-player contact on the field, she said. And as soccer becomes increasingly competitive, it will take more rule enforcement to bring injuries back down.
The injury breakdown showed some interesting trends: Heading was the most common activity during which concussions occurred, followed by defending, general play, goaltending and chasing loose balls. Player contact caused almost 70 percent of boys' concussions and just over half of those injuries among girls. Close to 30 percent of girls' concussions were caused by heading, versus almost 17 percent for boys.
Bob Colgate, sports medicine director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said the study highlights why soccer rules need to be enforced. He said caution against fighting and reckless play will be highlighted by the group's soccer rules committee for the upcoming season. "Players, coaches, game officials and spectators must work together to model and demonstrate sportsmanship and fair play, to minimize risk and maximize participation," Colgate said.