Soccer reins in headers to cut down youth concussions

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

When Kevin Coulter watches his son Andrew play for the Waza FC West U-9 soccer team, he can see the hesitation every time the ball is in the air.

It’s not because Andrew, 8, is scared to head the ball or doesn’t know how. It’s because he’s not allowed to.

In November, the United States Soccer Federation adopted a policy that set strict limits on youth players heading the ball. The new rules, which are aimed at reducing concussions, ban heading for players 10 and under. For players from 11-13, heading is limited to a maximum of 30 minutes per week with no more than 15-20 headers per player in practice, but there’s no restriction in matches.

“We were training heading the ball correctly for three years with him and now it’s like, ‘Take that out of your arsenal. You can’t use it anymore,’ ” said Kevin Coulter, of Farmington Hills. “When you see your kid on the field right now about to play an easy header, there’s a look of confusion. They’re like, ‘Oh wait, I can’t.’ ”

The changes were a result of a settlement in a class-action lawsuit that was filed in August 2014 by parents and players in United States District Court in California claiming FIFA, U.S. Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Organization were negligent in treating and monitoring head injuries.

The new rules went into effect this spring, apply only to youth soccer players and are mandatory for U.S. Soccer youth national teams and academies, including Major League Soccer youth club teams. For other leagues and programs not under U.S. Soccer control, the guidelines are a recommendation.

Coulter said his son, who has been playing soccer since age 3, was bewildered when he heard about the rule.

“He was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Coulter said. “You try not to make a big deal of it, but right off the bat he was like, ‘Really? I can’t head the ball?’ Even in the fall they could head it, and now in the spring they can’t, so it was completely drastic.”

Mixed reviews

The Michigan State Youth Soccer Association, the state’s largest youth soccer organization and one of 55 state associations that belong to the U.S. Soccer Federation and U.S. Youth Soccer, has implemented the guidelines for its 90,000 players.

With the youth soccer spring season in full swing, association executive director Thomas Faro said he’s received “generally positive” feedback about the new rules.

“Obviously our role as a state soccer organization is to keep kids safe,” Faro said. “I’d say that if there has been any complaints, I think there’s a misunderstanding that heading alone is what causes concussions and that’s not the case.

“When you have young kids going up to attempt a header, that is where you have the most likelihood for concussions to occur. So it’s not just a result of heading only; it is primarily a result of young kids attempting to do a header and collisions occur, and as those collisions occur, the likelihood for concussions is greater.”

According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the study, treatment and prevention of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups, attempting to head the ball and colliding or falling is the No. 1 risk of concussions in youth soccer, causing more than 30,000 concussions each year. A February 2015 report by the foundation and Santa Clara University Institute of Sports Law and Ethics states that 30 percent of concussions in soccer are caused by heading the ball or by attempting to head the ball and colliding with a player, object or the ground.

The report also estimates delaying the introduction of heading until age 14 would prevent more than 100,000 concussions among middle-school-age players registered with U.S. Youth Soccer every three years.

Like Faro, Michigan Youth Soccer League president Dave Harris said the response he has received from the league’s members has been positive as coaches, players and referees adjust to the ban.

“I believe the heading ban is the responsible initiative in lieu of any proposed and as yet unproven functional protection gear,” said Harris, who presides over approximately 600 travel teams ranging from U-7 — under age 7 — to U-19. “I firmly believe players are benefiting and will continue to benefit from the new rules.”

‘They did no research’

While several youth coaches agree precautions need to be made to protect young players from head injuries, they said eliminating heading for U-11 players and younger wasn’t the best solution.

“I honestly disagree with the rule and strongly believe they should have mandated headgear to all players,” said Ashlee Lesperance, who coaches the U-8, U-9 and U-10 Chaos boys teams in the Grosse Ile Soccer Association.

“They did no research, in my opinion, when making this rule. If they did, I believe it would have never went into effect. Most concussions do not come from heading the ball.”

Lesperance said in her five years coaching at Grosse Ile Chaos, there have been four concussions: two from a player getting hit by the ball from someone else’s kick, one from a player attempting a bicycle kick at practice and one indoors when a player was pushed by an opponent and fell head-first into a wall.

Mario Scicluna, co-founder and executive director of Waza FC, a youth travel soccer club that has 81 teams in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, said just like the concussion certification program coaches have to go through, there should be a similar protocol for heading.

“Because the majority of the coaches in America are volunteer coaches, they don’t know how to teach the proper way to head the ball. If you educated the coaches the proper way and they taught the kids properly, it would have naturally reduced the incident of potential concussions,” said Scicluna, who has coached every age level over his 25-year career and currently coaches U-8, U-9 and U-15 boys teams.

“I never personally witnessed a concussion that resulted from a header. By that, I’m judging by the judicial standards of a concussion — dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, eye dilation, all of those things.

“Most concussions that I’ve ever seen have come from impact — person-to-person impact — which the new rule doesn’t augment at all.”

Royal Oak Youth Soccer Association President Chris Maeso, who oversees the third-largest club in Michigan with 2,000-plus players and 150 teams, said while he hopes the new rule will improve safety for players and lead to increased focus on footwork and trapping the ball, he’s unsure if that will be the ultimate effect.

“Perhaps if they immediately banned punting by goalkeepers that would have eliminated most of the heading opportunities they were concerned about and forced players to develop more skill by playing out of the back, as opposed to the goalie kicking it halfway down the field,” Maeso said.

Learning to adjust

Maeso added while he doesn’t think the ban impacts the game at the youngest age divisions, it does as the kids get older and better at crossing the ball and defending in the air.

Yet, Lesperance and Scicluna argue the no heading rule takes away an essential part of the game.

“Now instead of kids playing soccer like they have been used to, there are kids ducking out of the way of the ball,” Lesperance said. “That’s not soccer.”

Scicluna said the players on his Waza FC West U-8 and U-9 teams knew how to head the ball before they were forced to relearn things between the fall and spring seasons.

“We teach the kids how to receive with their chest, thigh and foot instead of heading the ball,” Scicluna said. “It’s mainly an issue on punts and crosses.”

Michigan State Developmental Soccer League president Todd Derby said that has led to an issue with high kicks in his league, which has more than 175 teams from U-7 through U-13 in the greater Detroit area.

“The problem is 11-year-old boys and girls who can’t use their head are trying to use other parts of their body to control the ball in the air, like a shoulder, their chest or a foot,” Derby said. “Now what we’re seeing is a foot coming up trying to collect the ball out of the air, the other player not using their foot and we’re having foot-to-face contact moments that are dangerous — probably more dangerous than two kids just trying to head the ball like they should be trying to do.

“So I think the rule is designed for concussions and I understand why they’re going that route, but we’re seeing instances of additional injuries or contact where kids are trying to do something with their foot that they shouldn’t.”

Scicluna said the new rules have drastically changed the game, especially on the smaller fields the younger players use. Referees now have to decide whether a header was purposeful — in which case it’s a penalty, resulting in a free kick at the spot of the foul and sets up a scoring opportunity — or unintentional and not an infraction.

“Rules will come and we’ll comply. So I literally taught the kids how to not head the ball, use different body parts, still get to the ball in the air and still play the real game as much as you can, but you got to modify it,” Scicluna said. “But it really does put our kids at a disadvantage on a global scale because the rest of the world is doing it properly.”

Time will tell how much of a difference the new safety initiatives have made, but Coulter thinks the heading ban will increase — not reduce — the number of injuries in the coming years.

“By taking (heading) away from the kids and not teaching them the proper way to do it, by the time they’re playing U-12 when they’re old enough to actually head the ball, the kids are so much bigger and stronger and they’re not going to have that experience,” Coulter said. “The injuries and concussions, to me, are going to go up for the kids.”