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Heading for Trouble: Is Heading a Soccer Ball Dangerous?

Soccer players often use the technique "heading" — using their head to stop or redirect the ball — during a soccer game, but researchers are issuing a new warning against this common playing maneuver.

A soccer ball is usually traveling at a high rate of speed when it comes in contact with a player's head. Without the proper technique and control, this can put him at a greater risk for cognitive impairment.

A 2011 study used MRI images of 32 adult amateur soccer players brains and compared them to the number of times each subject headed a ball.

Their findings showed that players who frequently headed the ball had brain injuries consistent with those found in concussion patients.

However, there is ongoing debate over the accuracy of the study based on the variability and small number of participants used. And although no research has yet proven a link between soccer and brain injuries, researchers warn that the risk remains high.

In a review of all existing research, a study published in the January 2012 issue of Neurosurgery, a part of the National Institutes of Health, warns that caution about heading must be used at all levels of soccer. Age-appropriate balls should be used until young players develop the neck strength and body control necessary for correct heading technique. Small children do not have the neck strength needed to correctly head a soccer ball, and this increases the risk of injury and cognitive impairment. Because of this, the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), does not recommend heading for any players under the age of 10. The use of soft headgear to protect a player's head is also an ongoing debate.

Soccer balls have been made safer in recent years. They are no longer made of leather and do not absorb moisture, allowing them to remain lightweight and making heading a little safer for experienced players.

The study concludes that more research is needed to definitely determine the long-range effects of heading and the impact it might have on a player's brain.

The AYSO recommends safe techniques to teach players the proper way to head a soccer ball. Those include:

  • Use rag, nerf, and inflatable balls to avoiding unnecessary, repetitive heading of a regulation soccer ball.
  • When a real soccer ball is used to simulate game conditions during practice, its use should be limited.
  • Coaches should be aware that fear of the ball can result in poor form and technique, and proper measures should be taken to ease young player's apprehension.
  • Only teach heading when a player shows an interest, not when a coach decides.
Read more on the AYSO's recommendations on proper heading techniques and how to teach them.
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