Dear <<First Name>>,
Last week our U-14 girls were practicing corner kicks during our Tuesday evening training session. I was explaining how to take and receive corner kicks when one of our players asked me if it was safe to head the ball. I wasn’t sure what to tell her so I figured I better research the subject and have an answer for her this week.
This is a very controversial subject. I lost my two front teeth years ago in a head to teeth collision when attempting to head a ball. We all believe head to head contact can cause concussions but can heading a soccer ball cause brain damage?
Hopefully this week’s newsletter will be helpful in determining the dangers of heading the ball for youth soccer players.
Make the most of your opportunity to coach!
Rob Kelly, Editor
Is Heading the Ball Safe?
There is good news and bad news.
First the bad news…many recent studies have concluded that heading a soccer ball can cause brain damage. Soccer players who frequently head the ball—a commonly used tactic for passing or scoring in a game—may be risking brain injury, memory loss, and impaired cognitive ability, according to a study published in the journal Radiology.
Canadian researcher, Dr. Tom Schweizer, director of the neuroscience research program at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, warns that heading a soccer ball -- a common move on the playing field -- can have serious, long-term effects on the brain.
Concussions account for as many as 8.6 percent of injuries in soccer, according to the study. Some of these concussions are caused by collisions, while others come from heading -- deliberately using your head to control the ball.
Not enough attention is paid to the consequences of this particular tactic, which can have lasting effects on thinking and memory even when the blows to the head aren't severe enough to cause a concussion, Schweizer said.
Now for the good news…Michael Lipton, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, tested soccer players using a type of MRI called diffusion-tensor imaging that looks at microscopic changes in the white matter in the brain. White matter is the tissue that conveys messages from one region of the brain to another.
The researchers found that players had to head the ball a certain number of times in a season before white matter abnormalities started to appear on imaging. The threshold varied from player to player but was generally in the range of 900 to 1,500 headers in a season.
There are also preventative measures one can take to reduce the risk of injury to the brain including:
Teaching Proper Technique
- use the correct size soccer ball for the age group of the players
- teach proper technique for heading the ball
- do not over-fill balls.
- discourage heading a water-soaked ball.
- use protective head gear.
- Keep your eye on the ball.
- Place your body so that your forehead (the thickest part of your skull) will meet the ball.
- Take a comfortable stance with knees bent.
- Keep your mouth closed (if you don't, you could bite your tongue).
- Use your arms for balance.
- As you make contact with the ball, impart power to the header by bending from the waist - don't bend your neck.
How to practice heading
- Follow-through toward the target.
If you're teaching heading to young children you shouldn't start by throwing a ball up in the air and asking them to head it.
Instead, give your players an appropriate-sized ball each, tell them to bounce it on the ground then try to head it forwards – not upwards – as it rises, use the technique described above.
Bouncing the ball takes the power out of the ball, slows the whole process down and reduces the chance of a child getting hurt while they learn the correct technique.
For older children, have them partner up and take turns tossing the ball at a moderate speed, at eye level. Make sure to encourage proper technique.
Never force a youth soccer player to head a ball if they do not want to.
In conclusion: Heading is and very likely will remain an important part of soccer, therefore as a youth soccer coach, you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
Use the previously mentioned preventative measures as well as keeping heading reps in practice to a controlled minimum. Teach your players to use other parts of their body to control, pass and score with the ball and make sure when your players do use their head, they are using proper technique.
Sources: HealthDay News, Feb 21, 2014 and St. Michael's Hospital, news release, Feb. 10, 2014
Practice Game of the Week: The Four Musketeers (U-8 to U-14)
Objective: To improve passing, support off the ball, teamwork and communication.
Set up: Divide your players into teams of four - a goalkeeper and three outfield players. Set up a 40’ x 30’ soccer pitch with one goal at each end.
How to play: All four players (including the keeper) must touch the ball in sequence before a goal can be scored.
Coaching notes: The four players have to touch the ball without a player from the other team touching it. If the ball is intercepted, the sequence has to start again.
Variation: A team can also score a goal by completing six or more consecutive passes.
Letter to the Editor
I coach a U-12 boys team comprised of 6 strong players, 3 moderate skilled players, and 4 beginners. Should I balance my lines or roll out one strong line and one not-so-strong line?
Answer: Integrate your beginners with your stronger players for the best long-term results. The beginners will learn from your stronger players and will improve as the season goes on. This is also a huge confidence booster for those players who are a little behind in development.
We would love to hear from you! If you would like to contribute to next week’s newsletter please send in your letter to the editor, or favourite game or interesting coaching experience to email@example.com.
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All the best with your team!
Editor, Soccer Coach Canada
PS. Visit soccercoachcanada.com for practice plans and archived newsletters.
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