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Heading in Youth Soccer: The Debate Continues

Is ban on heading before age 14 most effective concussion prevention strategy?

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 CLI 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.

Adding fuel to fire 

The decision by the United States Soccer Federation ("USSF") and a number of other national soccer organizations in November 2015 to ban heading in programs under their control for soccer players 10 and under and to limit heading in practice for those ages 12 and 13, to recommend to other youth soccer organizations that heading in practices or games be banned at the U11 level and younger, and that heading in training at the U12 and U13 be limited to a maximum of 30 minutes per week, with no more than 15 to 20 headers per player per week, has added considerable fuel to the fire of the debate over heading in soccer, with experts quickly lining up on both sides.

Commenting by email, Dawn Comstock, the author of the 2015 study on heading in scocer, [47] stated that, "As always, I support any and all efforts to keep young kids as safe as possible while playing sports, so, in general, I support the new U.S. Soccer initiative."

But Comstock expressed four concerns.  First, she wondered "what effort will be made to educate all those affected by the recommendations but not actually included in the requirement?"  

Second, she had concerns about enforcement and feasibility: "who will enforce these new regulations and what will be the penalty for violating them, and from a feasibility [standpoint], who will be counting how many headers each athlete takes in each practice and where/how will that be recorded and referred to?

Third, Comstock questioned the rationale for limiting heading in practice for 12- and 13-year-olds but allowing heading in games.  "This is completely backward from an injury prevention perspective," she said, "since concussion rates are significantly higher in competition and because we want young athletes to learn proper technique in the controlled practice environment."

Finally, fourth, Comstock reitterated her view that there was "no strong scientific evidence for these age cut points." 

Likewise critical of U.S. Soccer's actions was Chris Koutures, the lead author of the AAP youth soccer clinical report. [21]  "There is no evidence-based, peer-reviewed literature to support a ban on heading at age 11 versus age 14, versus any age for that matter.  When the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness looked at the introduction of heading in youth soccer, we concluded that it "only be taught when the child is willing to learn proper technique and has developed coordinated use of his or her head, neck, and trunk to properly contract the neck muscles and contact the ball with the forehead." This came from consensus opinion of our members, not from any direct study interpretation.

So, "as for the ban on heading U11 and under" is concerned, Koutures was "fairly OK with that, [because] most kids [at] those ages tend to shy away from balls in the air and I can't fathom most kids U11 and under [being] able to muster the ability to protect themselves and initiate coordinated head, neck and trunk action." As a result, said Koutures, that U.S. Soccer came out against heading U11 "is fairly consistent with our AAP recommendations."

Having said, however, Koutures viewed the practice limitations in heading at U12 and U13 as "arbitrary" and without "roots in evidence-based studies." They may prove to be a "good start" or "we may learn down the road that even those restrictions may allow too much exposure." The fact is, he said, that we "just don't have that supporting knowledge at this time."

Koutures also expressed concern that people will look strictly at the numbers of headers taken in practice and not watch the kid.  He cited as an example pitch counts in baseball, which while well-intentioned, sometimes cause some parents/coaches to focus just on the number of pitches, without observing the pitcher's performance on the field.  "There is no apparent concern about fatigue [as long as] the pitcher is 'under his limit', even if his pitches are way out of the strike zone, he is grimacing on every throw and shaking his arm between pitches." Koutures cautioned that, when heading is introduced, "it will be important to look not just at numbers. but on how the kid is approaching and relating to the ball. Any evidence of shying away or hesitation, forget the number, that session should be done."

That the new U.S. Soccer guidelines on heading in soccer make no mention of the importance of neck strengthening, Koutures said was "disappointing, as again, if the goal is to protect kids, then publicizing the emerging and growing body of literature that supports neck strengthening would be quite sensible." "The realist is me grudgingly must admit that even with great data and programs (on-line, free, evidence-based) for ACL injury reduction, adoption has been quite dismal, and perhaps that's in part why neck strengthening could suffer the same fate and thus not be as attractive to promote."

Although, as a longtime advocate of a ban on heading in soccer below age 14, Webbe generally supported the new heading rules and recommendations, echoed some of the criticisms expressed by Comstock and Koutures. "I found the failure [of the new rules and recommendations] to comment on rules enforcement to be a stunning omission," Webbe said in an email. "As a former referee, I know firsthand that enforcement of existing rules sets the tone for style of play on the field. In my opinion, soccer lags far behind football in legislating rules to make play safer (regarding concussions) and in enforcing rules. This issue is fully under the control of the organizing structures, and they are failing when it comes to protecting players."

Webbe also found it surprising that little mention of neck strength or neck strengthening was made, since, "from a theoretical perspective that gravitates to best practices, weakness in the muscles supporting the head is a primary argument against youth heading."

Critical of the new soccer heading rules, but for different reasons, was Michael Kaplen, an attorney who represents concussion victims and teaches brain injury law at George Washington University Law School, who told NBC News [50] that the new rules were actually a bad idea. The age limits seemed "arbitrary" and "stupid," Kaplen said. He advocates a complete ban for youth players.

And they make it seem like U.S. soccer officials found a fix, he said.

"These leagues are trying to solve a concussion problem by creating rules that give people a false sense of security," Kaplen said. "By creating rules, they imply they have addressed and solved this problem, which they have not."

Praise for soccer heading ban

Commenting on the new rules in the same NBC News article [50], CLI's Nowinski said the new rules fell short because they left middle school-age players vulnerable.

"From that perspective, we still have a ways to go,"  Nowinski, said.

But Nowinski also told NBC News that it was a good sign that U.S. Soccer that willing to draw a line somewhere. "For soccer to even set an age is a big step," he said.

Concussion Legacy Institute co-founder Cantu predicted that the new rules would cut the number of concussions among the youngest players and shorten the time when those children are at risk for experiencing "sub-concussive hits" that can cause brain injuries later.

Children between the ages of 10 and 12 are most susceptible to concussions because their brains are underdeveloped and their necks are not strong enough, Cantu said.

By delaying the introduction of headers, Cantu asserted, U.S. Soccer "is avoiding the most injurious time period for the brain - and you're also shortening the total amount of trauma somebody takes," he said.


* In the interest of transparency, and to avoid any suggestion of bias in reporting this story, it should be noted that Dr. Comstock, Professor Webbe, and Dr. Koutures 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. Updated November 10, 2015 to reflect breaking news about the new rules and recommendations on heading in soccer announced by U.S. Soccer. Most recently updated April 20, 2016 to include Professor Webbe's views on the new youth soccer heading ban and practice limitations.