The effect of heading on brain structure has been a topic of debate in last months since England banned these actions on children during training sessions (USA banned in 2015). There are many investigations that have reported data on heading and brain injuries in different sports, however there is no clear agreement on this. For example, a review with young soccer players by O’Kane et al (2016) concludes that there is no evidence that the youth football title causes permanent brain injury and there is limited evidence that the title can cause concussion. In contrast, Bunc et al (2017) concludes that the consequences of head injury are evident as chronic changes in cognition, including disturbances in concentration and slowing of mental and physical agility.
“There are many investigations that have reported data on heading and brain injuries in different sports, however there is no clear agreement on this”
Given the variability in the designs and characteristics of the studies (e.g., population, equipment, prospective/retrospective designs), is not possible obtaining clear conclusions about that. However, heading ban in young players could be a “hasty decision” with negative effect on heading performance in the future (i.e., timing, step adjustment, head and body orientation) given the importance of early ages for the development of this skill.
“Heading ban in young players could be a hasty decision with negative effect on heading performance in the future”
In this research Beaudouin et al. analyzed the frequency and type of heading during one match (480 teams) and one training sessions (312 teams) in eight European countries. Different age categories were analyzed: under-10 (U10), under-12 (U12) (both of them female, male, or mixed) and male and female under-16 (U16) teams.
The main findings of this investigation were 6: 1) lowest number of headers per match in U10, 2) lower incidence (taking export time into account) in U10 players (from -19% to -37%), 3) total headers varied between countries (e.g., U10 from 2.9 to 15.2), 4) very few head injuries (none of them heading-related) resulted in a low incidence rate, 5) U10 teams carried out the lowest number of headers per training session (21.3±87.0) but when taking exposure times into consideration lower heading incidence rates were found in U16 females and males, 6) no head injury occurred during all training sessions.
- This is the first large-scale descriptive study in this area. It shows that headings are frequent in U16’s football matches and training, with higher numbers as the age increases, more in males.
- However, acute head injuries are more likely related to head-to-head contact and unintentionally getting hit by a ball. Also, the head impact is increased by heading long-distance shots, but proper heading technique with frontal contact with the ball results in less impact.
- So, to lessen acute, high-energy head injuries in football, the aim should probably be to reduce the chances of head-to-head contact and unintentionally being hit by a ball. Rules modifications or head protection gear are feasible options for this goal.
- About cumulative chronic brain damage due to heading, the present research is still inconsistent and inconclusive, warranting further research. Anyway, for reducing the impact of the headings and its possible consequences, progressive introduction of heading with age (specially long-shots heading), timed with progressive heading training with technique and neck strengthening exercises, are probably the measures to be discussed.
“Rules modifications or head protection gear are feasible options for this goal”