Heading the ball in soccer can cause brain damage, says new evidence in a recent study published by researchers from the University of British Columbia Okanagan.
Male soccer players were asked by researchers to head balls that were launched at 77.4 kilometres per hour from a specialized machine. The players then had a concussion assessment and gave a blood sample to measure two different proteins.
Plasma tau protein and serum neurofilament-light protein both indicate brain injury, particularly in acute concussions.
“We showed that there is disruption to the structure of the brain following a bout of soccer heading, and so there should be concern over how safe the activity itself is within the context of the sport,” wrote Colin Wallace, a co-author on the study, in an email.
“We hope our research will convince other national and international organizations to examine the negative effects of heading and instigate new guidelines to help protect younger athletes.”
The study found that the players had more NF-L protein in their blood and higher concussion scores after heading the ball. The results suggest that the players had sustained an acute head injury.
There was also an increase in NF-L protein when players contacted the ball on other parts of their body, such as their chest.
Heading at an elite level
For local coaches, the study reinforced their existing approach to training, where they limit heading in practice. Local coaches had learned about the results of the research when it was first published because they are always tracking new information that could help them track their players’ health.
The study shows that there are risks associated with heading the ball, but the athletes of the UBC men’s soccer team typically don’t perform repetitive heading.
“It’s a part of the game but not a huge part of the game, so we don’t implement a lot of it into our practice,” said Mike Mosher, the head coach of the UBC men’s soccer team.
The UBC men’s soccer players are expected to already know how to head the ball before reaching the elite university level. As a result, any heading that the players do mainly occurs during games.
Injuries from heading are a concern for Mosher, but the majority of the concussions he’s seen are from collisions with other players. Two UBC athletes had serious concussions this season from contact with players from other teams.
“It was scary, it was like, seeing these kids that you see on a regular basis and you see them be totally different people,” said Paul Pedersen, the assistant coach for the UBC men’s soccer team.
Prioritizing player safety in training
Teaching heading is restricted for very young athletes. The Vancouver Football Athletic Club trains players between the ages of five and 18 and doesn’t start teaching their athletes heading until they’re 11 or 12 years old.
“You’re dealing with a physically maturing young person and their brain’s still developing, so it’s a little bit taboo to be doing too much heading below the age of 12,” said Mosher.
Heading training at the athletic club starts with a lighter, nerf-type ball along with strength training to build muscles around the neck and upper body. Even then, the coaches are encouraged to teach their athletes a possession, ground-based game.
Steve Weston, the technical director at the athletic club, has seen a transition in the last decade from a direct, airborne game style, to a more possession-style game.
“The better they are at [possession] technique, since it’s moving the ball with their feet, getting it out of their feet, the better player they are going to be,” said Weston.
When concussions do occur, the club follows concussion protocols set by the British Columbia Soccer Association and requires its players to get medical clearance before they can return to playing.
The athletes aren’t even allowed to participate in soccer practices until they’ve received 100-per-cent clearance because the athletic club doesn’t want their players facing the risk of a stray ball or other accidents.
The protocols set by the soccer association are based on research studies that look at the different risks athletes potentially face in competitive play.
“Different research studies are coming out, you know, governing bodies are always looking into it and then we, as a club, are always looking at them for advice, so we’re all working together to ensure that the players safety is paramount,” said Weston.
Research looking at head injuries in soccer is still relatively preliminary compared to hockey and American football, but the researchers hope that the results of the study will inspire new guidelines at a national and international level that further protect the athletes.