Concussions in youth sports have attracted a lot of attention in recent years, and for good reason: concussions are common, impact cognition in the short term, and can have severe cognitive and behavioral consequences in the longer term. Not only are fun and games missed after a concussion, but so is a lot of school. Future learning and earning opportunities that student-athletes may have based on their academic successes are often put at risk, especially when the number of concussions a player suffers multiplies.
In high school sports, more than 40% of concussions occur in football players, making it the most dangerous sport to developing brains. Soccer — for girls and for boys — is next on the list, and its popularity continues to grow. Recently, there have been calls coming from former soccer stars, including Olympic gold medalist Brandi Chastain, to ban headers for young soccer players under 14 years old. While a new study, published in JAMA Pediatrics concludes that up to 30% of concussions in high school soccer players can be averted by banning headers, researchers suggest that reining in rough play at all levels of competition would have a bigger impact. That’s because, Justin Worland reports, head-to-head collisions by two or more players are the greater threat:
Despite their findings, the researchers behind the study don’t think the header should disappear from the game. Instead, concerned parents and youth sports governing bodies should focus on ways to reduce dangerous player-to-player contact, where most concussions occur, said Colorado School of Public Health researcher Dawn Comstock, one of the study’s authors. “Banning heading would reduce some concussions without a doubt, perhaps as many as 30% of the concussions,” she says. “However, our study clearly showed that we could help many more kids if soccer would rein in the rough play.”
It’s not the contact between an incoming ball and a player’s head that causes the majority of concussions when soccer players attempt a header, the study finds and witnesses of soccer concussions can attest. Rather, it is head-to-head, head-to-elbow, and head-to-ground impacts that cause most of these head bangs during this soccer move.
Heading the ball is an integral part of the game of soccer. Emphasizing other ways in teaching players to control and direct the ball might sound pleasing to those concerned about concussions, but expecting competitive players to play less aggressively might be asking too much. Dr. Robert Cantu, a concussion expert who has led the way in researching concussions and their relationship with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) seen in professional and retired athletes, still thinks a ban on headers for younger players is a good idea, telling USA Today:
Cantu conceded there was no perfect cut-off point. He said the ages 8 to 14 are when the brain is most vulnerable and when much of the most important brain growth occurs.
We’ll learn more tomorrow about why Dr. Cantu is so concerned with concussions and their long-term consequences to brain function and behavior in athletes, especially football players, especially children.