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Heading in Youth Soccer: The Debate Continues

Proposed ban on heading before age 14 not most effective concussion prevention strategy, says new study

Decision tree

Where does all of this lead parents and middle school and Under-14 youth soccer programs?

In answering the question, "Should my child head soccer balls?" (for parents, at least) Webbe proposes in his 2010 book [2] the use of the following "decision tree":

Should My Child Head Soccer Balls?

If Yes to ALL: OK with Caution
If Yes to ANY: NO
13 or older
Under 13
Proportional musculature for head size
Large head relative to body
No history of head injury Positive history of head injury
Has had technical heading instruction from a qualified coach
No technical heading instruction from a qualified coach
No history of learning or attention problems
Positive history of learning or attention problems


As Webbe notes, however, while this decision tree is useful for individual children, it "does not address the practical application of such a decision matrix. Clearly, it would be awkward at best and chaotic at worse to allow some children on a team to head and not others."

In his view, a ban on heading for all children would thus be the best practical solution.

As for middle-school and U14 soccer programs, time will tell whether the science will prove him and SLI right.  For now, however, one thing is clear, and that is that the science is far from clear: that the evidence simply does not permit an unqualified answer to the question of whether heading a soccer ball results in more concussions and repeated subconcussive brain trauma which can have long-term neurological consequences in both adolescents and adults, much less that delaying heading until age 14 will result in fewer concussions and measurably less long-term neurological consequences for those who delay heading versus those who don't.

It also remains to be seen if the Safer Soccer Campaign, despite the backing of SLI's well-honed publicity machine, will eventually gain traction nationally. While the list of organizations and experts supporting the campaign is impressive and growing, the number of schools which have banned heading in the year since the campaign was announced remains paltry (a recent visit to Sports Legacy Institute's website48 lists just three schools in the entire country, two private and one public middle school, which have joined the campaign so far). That lack of support suggests that it will not, and provides support for Dr. Comstock's observation in her 2015 study47 that banning heading from youth soccer, while preventing some concussions, may simply not be "culturally acceptable."  

Absent peer-reviewed studies showing that banning heading not only leads to a statistically significant reduction in concussion rates, but is a more effective as a prevention strategy than what appear to be more culturally tolerable alternatives, such as better rules enforcement, education, and coaching, the Safer Soccer Campaign appears, as with SLI's other initiatives, to be another instance in which it is gotten out ahead of the science. 


* In the interest of transparency, and to avoid any suggestion of bias in reporting this story, it should be noted that both Dr. Comstock and Professor Webbe are uncompensated members of MomsTEAM Institute's Board of Advisors, which is developing best practice youth sports health and safety checklists, including youth soccer, for the Institute's SmartTeamTM program.  It remains to be seen where the Institute will ultimately come down on the issue of the age at which heading in soccer can safely begin, or whether, as banning heading is the best way to reduce concussions at the youth level, as SLI proposes and Professor Webbe supports, or via better rules enforcement, enhanced education of players, and better coaching, as Dr. Comstock recommends.


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Posted August 3, 2014. Most recently reviewed  and substantially updated July 16, 2015