The United States Soccer Federation has taken a major step in an attempt to reduce concussions among youth soccer players, adopting a policy that bans players under 11 from heading the ball and reducing headers in practice for 11 to 13 year olds, the New York Times reports. The new rules—which also include changes to substitutions—are in response to a class action lawsuit, which will now be dismissed.
The new rules do not apply to all youth soccer players in America, only those that play on teams under the auspices of U.S. Soccer, which includes all “youth national teams and academies, including Major League Soccer youth club teams.” They will only be recommendations to other leagues, but some leagues already ban headers under 10, and you can bet a number of them will adopt U.S. Soccer’s guidelines as their own.
Concussions are a major issue in youth soccer. The best study on the problem, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that among nine studied sports (boys’ baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and wrestling and girls’ basketball, soccer, softball, and volleyball) the girls’ soccer concussion rate was second highest, and the boys’ fifth highest.
The direct act of heading the ball isn’t necessarily a problem. The study found that only 4.7% of boys’ concussions and 8.2% of girls’ concussions were due to head contact with the ball. But overall 30.6% of boys’ concussions and 25.3% of girls’ concussions occurred on headers, mostly from banging heads with another player, but also from hitting the turf. Heading was also the “soccer-specific” activity that caused the most concussions, followed by “defending,” “general playing,” and “goalkeeping.”
And while that study only examined high school sports, a smaller study also in JAMA Pediatrics found that headers caused 30.3% of concussions in female middle school players, a broadly similar finding.
Keeping kids earthbound at such a young age is undoubtedly good for their brains, but it doesn’t come without costs. Limiting how much kids can practice heading until they are 14 will lead to slower development of an integral soccer skill. And while that’s not really a concern in your average hometown league—who cares if all of the kids playing soccer for fun suck at headers—these new rules specifically apply to the elite leagues that incubate future national team talent.
The United States already faces a number of structural challenges in competing against the world’s best, and these rules should only exacerbate them. Then again, perhaps fewer concussions will mean more elite youth players will reach their absolute potential instead of being forced from the game due to head injuries, and maybe it will allow Americans to catch up on their ball-skills.
But most importantly, it is good for little kids’ brains.
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