Five of the top youth soccer tournaments in America have now banned headers for athletes age 12 and younger in an effort to reduce head injuries

Youth soccer is one of the most popular team sports in the world. Whether it’s playing at the park or for the neighborhood recreation league, kids enjoy the fast-paced competition of scoring the next goal and celebrating like one of their idols.

While soccer is supposed to provide a noncontact outlet for athleticism and competition, it’s not uncommon to see head injuries occur on the field. In fact, a recent study showed a 110% increase in soccer-related injuries among children ages 7 to 17 from 1990 to 2014.1

Head injuries in soccer most commonly occur when two players collide while trying to hit the ball with their heads. This maneuver, also known as a header, is commonly seen at all professional and semi-professional games and most adolescent leagues.

Soccer players can be taught how to properly and safely head the ball. But this coaching doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of head injuries that occur because it’s up to the player to use their best judgment during a fast-paced game.

Techniques for properly heading a ball include:

  • Keeping your eye on the ball while in flight
  • Talking to teammates while the ball is in the air
  • Striking the ball with your forehead
  • Pushing your head through the ball when contact is made

However, accidents do occur, and leagues have started to take notice.

Five of the top youth soccer tournaments in America have now banned headers for athletes age 12 and under in an effort to reduce head injuries. The below chart shows the rules for heading the ball in these recreational leagues.

Guidelines for heading the ball by league

Chart showing rules for headers by league

To ensure compliance, leagues are now enforcing a no header rule by awarding a penalty shot to the other team if a player intentionally heads the ball.

It’s clear that players can be injured when attempting this maneuver, but what about when they are successful and only hit the ball with the crown of their head? Is this repeated impact enough to cause harm over time? Should we allow athletes between the ages of 13 and 18 to strike the ball with their head during this critical stage of brain development?

With the help of neuropsychological testing, researchers are looking at the long-term effects of headers in professional soccer players, from early childhood through their professional careers. A study published in the journal Neurology showed that professional soccer players exhibit a significant decrease in memory, planning and visual perception, when compared to healthy control subjects.2

Another study conducted by the University of Delaware showed evidence that a soccer ball can travel up to 25 mph when making contact with the athlete’s head.3 This study also concluded that females were exposed to higher linear and rotational accelerations than males. This means females are more susceptible to injury than their male counterparts.

So far, leagues have done a good job of protecting soccer players age 12 and under. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate headers in soccer for players age 17 and under, too. By regulating the game, leagues can increase athlete safety and quality of life.

Reference list:

  1. Smith, N.A., Chounthirath, T., Xiang, H. (2016). Soccer-related injuries treated in emergency departments: 1990-2014. Pediatrics, 138(4), 2016-0346. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/09/08/peds.2016-0346
  2. Matser, J.T., Kessels, A.G., Jordan, B.D., Lezak, M.D., Troost, J. (1998). Chronic traumatic brain injury in professional soccer players. Neurology, 51(3), 791-6. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9748028
  3. Caccesse, J.B., Buckley, T.A., Tierney, R.T., Rose, W.C., Glutting, J.J., Kaminski, T.W. (2018). Sex and age differences in head acceleration during purposeful soccer heading. Res Sports Med, 26(1), 64-74. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29067816