Those Soccer Headers May Hurt More Than You Think

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(credit: Thinkstock)

(credit: Thinkstock)

Dr. Dave Hnida By Dr. Dave Hnida
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Soccer is not totally a game of feet. You’ve got to use your head as well. For most players, it equates to an average of 12 times per game. That’s a lot of bonks to the noggin.

Add up all of those game headers, then throw in what takes place during practice — 30+ — and you start to wonder how much damage is being done to those neurons inside the brain. And if you’re wondering, the average speed of that inflated spheroid from the sky is 50 mph when it connects to the cranium.

That’s a lot of force and with it, lots of concern these days over the long term effects of soccer headers. That includes two recent studies, one of which showed memory loss and problems in concentration in players who have spent a lot of time on the pitch. The other showed actual changes in brain function via special brain scans.

Now how much is “a lot of time” on the pitch? And how many hits does it take to cause a problem? After all, soccer has been around for centuries.

According to one piece of research, 885 to 1,550 headers per year seemed to add up to subtle problems in brain function. In other words, there really weren’t noticeable symptoms by the player, but testing picked up a few dents.

More than 1,800 a year for many years added up to some not-so-subtle problems that often were blown off as minor forgetfulness or problems with concentration.

But once again, how many years does it take? And who is carrying a little clicker than measures hits to the head? And what if one hit is harder than another — is that worse?

None of the questions are easily answered, and the research into soccer and brain damage is still in its infancy.

So enjoy the World Cup competition and the tremendous skills that go with it, while at the same time, don’t blow off that little voice inside your saying “Don’t try this at home.”

With hundreds of thousands of American kids continuing to take up the game, here’s what to think about if your child is one of those mini–soccer superstars:

  1. Limit the number of headers performed in practice. Header drills should be kept to a minimum, and then done to mainly teach proper technique.
  2. Proper technique is a key. Coaches should be taught, and then tested by youth leagues on the right way to head a ball.
  3. There should be an emphasis on neck muscle strength. Some research suggests it’s important for performing a proper header.
  4. Year round soccer play is not a brain healthy habit — time away is important
  5. Size does matter. The bigger the ball, the harder the hit. Always use age appropriate equipment.
  6. Don’t overinflate. Harder is not better.

Enjoy the Cup! Good luck USA! (or whoever  your favorite team is — which at this point I hope is the USA.)

Just make sure the ball doesn’t give you or your child’s brain a red card.

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