Shortly following the conclusion of last summer’s World Cup in Russia, revered soccer journalist Grant Wahl noted that many of the tournament’s most exciting moments began “from a standstill.”
He was referring to goals scored from set pieces, any situation, such as a penalty kick, corner kick, or free kick, in which the player manipulates an unmoving ball.
Wahl was right about the importance of set pieces in the tournament. What fan could forget Yerry Mina’s last-minute equalizer against England, or Samuel Umtiti’s goal from a corner kick to send France to the final?
Both of these goals were scored with the player’s head, with the sort of finishing touch that most soccer fans think of when reminded of the importance of set pieces. The soccer world has always glorified the solid, “thumping” header. It’s seen as one of the sport’s gritty, tough techniques, the equivalent of forcing a besieged running back over the line and into the end zone on 4th-and-1. Defenders are applauded for launching themselves into the air to head away crosses, and a cushioned headed pass in the box, known as a knockdown, can be devastating if used effectively.
But the header now faces scrutiny in light of new research that suggests it may be damaging to players’ brains. Youth league associations in the United States, including US Soccer and US Club Soccer, have banned the sports youngest players from heading the ball and have limited older players’ exposure to heading in practice through the US Soccer Concussion Initiative 2016.
The Ringer’s Noah Davis suggests that if soccer’s century-and-a-half-old rules were re-written today, heading would be banned completely. Davis concedes that it would be near impossible to completely eradicate heading from a massively popular sport that has remained relatively unchanged since its inception. But the data is there. Last June, the New York Times cited a study conducted in Puerto Rico that found that heading a ball subjected children’s brains to concussion-causing levels of force. Another study indicated that women’s brains suffer more damage when exposed to forces caused by heading than those of men.
2.3 million American children between the ages of six and twelve play soccer, and CBS News reports that between 2000 and 2014, over 200,000 youth soccer players in the country were treated for concussion symptoms. These concussions, it must be noted, were not exclusively caused by heading the ball, but do indicate that soccer players suffer a significant amount of head injuries.
There are methods of enhancing the safety of heading. United Soccer Coaches encourages coaches to instruct their teams on the differences between attacking and defensive headers, conduct neck strengthening exercises, and practice proper heading techniques with their players. These efforts, in conjunction with increased awareness of concussions and new technology like the Reflexion Edge, are positive steps toward enhanced athlete protection. The Edge, a six-by-two-foot portable LED touchscreen board, works on preventative, assessment-based, and rehabilitative fronts by collecting data on the user’s cognitive ability through short tests and storing it in an individualized user profile in an accompanying software system. Users improve their visual and cognitive abilities while simultaneously building a baseline of cognitive data to which future tests can be compared. If a user’s scores decline significantly, an administrator is automatically notified. Professionals may also use the Edge to administer objective, trackable therapy to patients suffering from symptoms of traumatic brain injury.
Heading is an integral aspect of the beautiful game, but an aspect that must be recognized as potentially dangerous and ultimately improvable.