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Is Removing Heading from Soccer Going to Change the Game?

Is Removing Heading from Soccer Going to Change the Game?

This is a difficult question to answer because, at the youth level, it will change the game. The U.S. Soccer Federation has announced new regulations that address youth and concussions. Litigation in California has led FIFA, U.S. Soccer Federation, and American Youth Soccer to ban heading the ball in ages 10 and under and limit heading in ages 11 to 13. We have to look outside of soccer to see ramifications from major rule changes in youth leagues for the level of play at the adult game. A little over 3 years ago USA Hockey banned checking, which is an integral part of the game, in ages 12 and below. This was done in a effort to decrease injury rates in general, not just concussions. We are also seeing a change in football with the rapid increase in youth flag football leagues. It will probably be 8 to 10 years before we see the athletes that are trained under these new rules hit the elite levels of competition, so we won’t know how different the sports will look. The youth sporting landscape is changing and looks a whole lot different from when I grew up, but I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

There is also the law of unintended consequences. The changes in how youth sports are played have decreased the number of certain injuries, but I don’t think we have enough data yet to say other injuries won’t be on the rise. When football went from leather helmets to the plastic ones in the 1920s and 30s, it was in a effort to decrease skull fractures. They didn’t have many concussions or severe neck injuries, but they had 21 players die from skull fractures in one year. So there will always be unintended consequences to changes.

Also, changes in rules will not eliminate concussions/head injuries in youth sports. As much as we want to protect our kids, they are going to get injured. According to the CDC, the activity that generated the most number of ER visits for head injuries in kids is bicycle riding. Yet, drive through any neighborhood and you’ll see kids riding bikes.

While we are waiting on exactly how these new rules on heading will be implemented by the US bodies governing soccer, they are, in my opinion, a step in the right direction. These rule changes will also change how 50/50 balls are challenged. These rule changes will decrease, but not eliminate, head impacts and that will decrease the change of sustaining a concussion. One thing that all parents, coaches, and athletes have to remember is that the vast majority of concussions will resolve with time. The most important thing regarding head injuries is not to miss or misdiagnose a concussion. A concussion can derail a season, but missed or misdiagnosed concussion can have life long consequences.

Dr. Robert Flannery currently practices at Lemak Sports Medicine Gardendale and Hoover locations. For more information call (205)631-8887 or (205)444-2025.