If you’ve winced at the sight of a ball coming down on a young soccer player’s head, new guidelines from the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) won’t surprise you. Heading the ball is too dangerous for players under age 11, the federation made known in early November, and players ages 11-13 should attempt it only during practice.
Sports medicine doctor Bianca Edison, M.D., believes young athletes need to watch out for another big hazard: collisions. Edison is an attending physician at the Children’s Orthopedic Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and works with the L.A. Galaxy soccer team, the L.A. Kings Youth Hockey League and local AYSO affiliates. She points to a July study in JAMA Pediatrics that found player-to-player collisions caused more concussions that heading did, and recommends teaching young players to continually screen the field so that they are aware of where teammates and opposing players are.
Edison says some neck exercises are also in order, as strong neck and trunk muscles can help keep the head stable, reducing the risk of concussion. First, stretch the trapezius muscles (they extend over the back of the neck and shoulders) by sitting up straight and using one hand against the opposite side of the head to gently bring the head to the side. Next, lying prone with a small towel rolled under the forehead, gently raise the head and neck and hold in that position. “I would love to see these sorts of exercises implemented in elementary P.E. classes,” Edison says.
When players are ready to attempt heading, technique is key. Players should bring the head up to the ball (using those strengthened neck muscles), rather than letting the ball come down onto the head. “Instead of just using your head to hit the ball, you actually use your whole body,” Edison says. “At all times as a player, you want to be in control.” Drilling with a lighter ball, such as a beach ball or Nerf ball, lets players focus on technique without worrying about impact.
Kids who experience a blow to the head during a game or practice should be evaluated for signs of concussion, which include headache, dizziness, nausea, light and sound sensitivity (your child might complain about the lights at a night game, or loud music or crowd noise), decreased energy and difficulty concentrating.
Under the new USSF guidelines, players can be pulled off the field during a game to be evaluated without costing their team a substitution. And Edison says it is important that young players understand that playing while injured means risking more severe damage that could take them out of the game permanently. “The strongest athlete is the smartest athlete, who knows when to say when,” she says. “It’s so crucial to protect that brain.”