Sports Medicine Australia is anticipating a surge in children playing football in the wake of Australia and New Zealand hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
While concerns about concussion may inspire calls in Australia for a ban on children heading the ball, as is the case in England and America, a ban would likely not produce the hoped for outcomes, a world-leading researcher in concussion in football says.
“While a heading ban in young players – a strategy endorsed in heading guidelines in the US and England – might appear to be a sensible option to protect the developing brains of young players,” world-leading researcher in concussion in football Dr Kerry Peek – who is a member of Sports Medicine Australia’s NSW Council – said.
However, “banning heading during an important skill development phase may impede young players from developing safer heading technique in the future,” Dr Peek said.
“If we expect players to head the ball at any age, we must teach them the skills of heading, much of which, like ball tracking and body positioning, require no ball-head impacts at all.” Dr Peek said.
“If we do not teach players how to safely head the ball, then we could be exposing them to a higher risk of concussion.”
“Acquiring the skills of heading can and should start with no ball-head-contact at all.”
Dr Peek is the lead author of a research article published in Sports Medicine Australia’s Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport titled “The incidence and characteristics of purposeful heading in male and female youth football (soccer) within Australia”.
Sports Medicine Australia CEO Jamie Crain said: “We expect that young people will be inspired to play soccer by the media coverage of the Women’s World Cup, particularly coverage of the Matildas games.
“This expected surge in participation is not just fabulous for football but for individuals who try the sport.
“The physical activity will benefit individuals though improved fitness levels and will also bring mental health benefits and extra opportunities to interact with others, essential for socialisation.
Dr Peek said: “Recently football has received increased scrutiny, particularly the impact of purposeful heading on brain health and development.”
Purposeful heading is a skill integral to football where players deliberately use their heads to re-direct the ball. Between 20-25% of goals are scored by a header across international tournaments.
“Whether purposeful heading is associated with neurodegenerative diseases in later life is the subject of much debate,” Dr Peek said.
“But considering the scientific and public concern around repetitive head impacts such as heading a ball, governing bodies should do what they can to retain all the positive benefits of playing a team sport while minimising the risks, especially in young players”.
Dr Peek was a member of UEFA’s Heading Expert Group (Chaired by Prof Tim Meyer) that drafted UEFA’s Heading Guidelines in 2020.
Dr Peek’s study of 110 football games was the first study to document heading incidence rates in Australia and found:
- Under-15 males and under-17 females demonstrate a higher heading incidence rate than any other age group.
- Midfielders completed the most headers in all female age groups.
- Defenders completed the most headers in under 15–20 males.
- Heading duels accounted for 16% of total headers with most headers performed during free play.
- Only 57 head impacts (out of a total of 4672 recorded, or about 1 per cent) were unintentional, from being struck by the ball or an opponent’s body part. Of these only four required medical attention.
“The study findings can be used to inform heading guidelines which would include teaching youth players heading technique based on specific game scenarios for their position and age group while also limiting heading practice in players who consistently head the ball in matches to reduce the accumulative number of headers over their playing career.”
Discussion of heading ban
“If we ban heading in certain age groups then we may be giving the wrong message that heading is bad when you are 10 years or younger (for instance), but it is safe when you are 11 years old and we have no evidence to support this claim.
“Players may develop a fear of heading the ball (because they have previously been told that it is bad hence a ban) and then players may head the ball with such poor technique that it increases their risk of injury (like concussion).
“What I want to see is a change in the messaging, hence no ban on heading in young ages, but we have consistent coach education to support the way children are taught the important foot based skills of football (through small sided games, playing out from the back, short corners etc) so that most heading is naturally minimised in children’s football and heading is introduced in football as part of their skill development as players get older and transition to a full pitch (around 13-14 years of age).”
About Dr Kerry Peek:
Dr Peek is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, was a member of UEFA’s Heading Expert Group which drafted UEFA’s Heading Guidelines in 2020, and is a FIFA Injury Spotter (concussion) at the Women’s World Cup. She is a member of Sports Medicine Australia’s NSW Council.
NOTE: Dr Peek’s research published in Sports Medicine Australia ‘Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport’.
Media contact: Seamus Bradley | [email protected] | 0410 256 902