Is heading a soccer ball bad for you?
Athletes protect their heads dearly in almost every sport, but in soccer, players use their noggins to strike an often fast-moving ball.
With the concern for concussions in sports rising, the question for many players and parents of players is whether heading a soccer ball is harmful.
The answer according to local, national and world experts is: Probably not and maybe, depending on what you read. But they agree that teaching good heading technique can avoid concussions.
No scientific study definitively links heading a soccer ball to brain damage in youths or adults.
Some studies suggest the brains of former professional soccer players have been brains affected by years of playing soccer, but even those suggest the players’ cognitive damage probably was caused by hitting goal posts or someone else’s head during games.
“I’ve coached for 26 years and never had a serious (head) injury” from heading, said Thad Kopec, soccer coach at Forest Lake Christian School. “The closest I had was a head-on-head situation” in which the players were shaken up.
“I’ve never seen anyone for heading a soccer ball,” said Dr. Gabriel Soto, a Nevada County orthopedic doctor.
What he worries about is a concussion, “a bruise to the brain,” that can occur when players hit each other, the goal post or the ground.
“If a young player has a concussion, you pull them out of the game,” Soto said. “The worst thing you can do is reinjure someone who has recently suffered a concussion,” and especially during the same game.
Concussions can cause subtle symptoms at the beginning, but the damage can add up over time with repeated blows, Soto.
At a National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine workshop on soccer head impacts held in 2002, former soccer player and sports medicine expert Dr. Donald Kirkendall said heading a soccer ball properly does not normally cause a concussion.
However, they can occur when a player is unprepared for the blow, according to a summary article about the meeting done by the institute.
Aggression may matter
At that same meeting, “several speakers noted that players who frequently head the ball tend to be aggressive players and their aggressiveness may make them more susceptible to head collisions with other players,” the article said.
According to Dr. Michael Asken and Dr. Robert C. Schwartz in an article done for The Physician and Sportsmedicine magazine in 1998, some suggest heading a soccer ball is like getting punched in the head during a boxing match.
That might have been the case with the old leather soccer balls, particularly when they became wet, the doctors said in their article entitled, “Heading the Ball in Soccer: What’s the Risk of Brain Injury?”
The synthetic balls used today don’t soak up water and get heavier, Michael Asken and Robert Schwartz wrote. In addition, synthetic soccer balls produce 20 Gs of head acceleration, compared to 100 Gs with a punch.
The doctors reviewed several studies of soccer players to reach their conclusions.
They cited a study of active Norwegian players who played an average of 100 games each who showed a number of symptoms of concussion from heading, including headache, neck pain, dizziness and in some, migraine headaches.
A study of 31 college soccer players done at Pennsylvania State University and published in the July 2004 issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed concussion symptoms “immediately after heading, but not 24 hours after heading.”
Another study done for the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine in Ann Arbor, Mich., over three years with 57 soccer players with a mean age of 11 1/2 showed no loss of cognitive function with heading. However, one of the teams was studied for another year, and 49 percent of players complained of headaches after heading the ball.
Yet another study of U.S. soccer players at Olympic Festival in 1993 showed 54 percent of players had suffered concussions during their careers. However, none of the concussions had come from properly heading the ball.
Technique is everything
Every source of information for this article said technique has everything to do with properly heading a ball to avoid injury.
“If you hit it on top, it hurts, but it’s off the forehead on the hairline, it’s fine,” Kopec said. “You have to teach them proper technique.”
Striking the ball at the hairline is best, “because the head is 10 times thicker there” than the side of the head, Soto said. “The bone on the side of the head is very thin” and leads to increased risk if used for heading.
American Youth Soccer Organization National Coach John Ouellette suggests players below the age of 10 shy away from heading the ball at all. Their bodies are simply not ready, and damage can occur, he said.
Ouellette suggested that coaches teach heading with a Nerf or rag ball to get youths used to it without risk. Coaches should not force players to head the ball if they don’t want to, and should keep young players from repeatedly heading the ball.
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4237.
A former coach and
player on heading
As a former soccer player and coach, I can tell you from experience there is one proper way to head a soccer ball.
The first time I went up to take one off the side of my head in a game, it felt like somebody hit me with a two-by-four. I went down in a heap.
When my coach taught me to head the ball straight on with the top of my forehead at the hairline, it didn’t hurt and I could send it a mile. When I missed and it hit the top of my head, my noggin would throb for a few minutes.
I never saw a player laid out of the field during my six years of playing and nine years of coaching from properly heading a ball. But I have helped players off the field who got hit because they were too close to react or tried to head it with their face or the top, back or side of the head.
For the proper technique, see the accompanying box.
– Dave Moller
How to head a
soccer ball correctly
n Square up to the ball, make your neck rigid and watch it all the way.
n As the ball is coming in, bend your knees, keep your eyes open, close your mouth and tuck the chin in to bring the head down.
n Push your legs and body toward the ball as it arrives with your arms out for balance, and strike it at the top of your forehead along the hairline, following through to the target.
n Strike the ball with the side, top or back of your head.
n Get knocked woozy; duck if the ball is coming at you from a short distance.
n Try to head the ball if you are under 10 years old.
Source: John Ouelette, National Coach, AYSO
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