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Youth Soccer Protocol Aims to Reduce Concussion Rates

U.S. Soccer will likely limit the amount of heading in youth soccer. (MSC U13 Green/Flickr)
U.S. Soccer will likely limit the amount of heading in youth soccer. (MSC U13 Green/Flickr)

On Nov. 9, the United States Soccer Federation announced a new series of initiatives to be put into place to discourage heading in youth soccer in order to reduce concussion rates.

A recent press release from U.S. Soccer says that children ages 10 and under will be banned from heading the ball during games and practices and players ages 11 to 13 will have limited heading during practice sessions.

U.S. Soccer has yet to lay out any official guidelines on its initiative for how it will be enforced. It will announce a more comprehensive plan next month.

According to Head Case, a grassroots organization working to protect young athletes from concussions, there are 33 cases of concussions out of every 100,000 experiences of athletic exposure for women and 19 to 19.2 cases for men. Athletic exposure is defined as "one athlete participating in one organized high school athletic practice or competition, regardless of the amount of time played."

Basil Benjamin, the director of coaching at Leg-A-Z Soccer Academy in Gainesville, said in his experience most concussions in soccer are not even from heading the ball, but from head-to-head collisions, head-to-elbow collisions or head-to-ground collisions.

So are these rules against heading the ball necessary?

“I have received a few concussions from my years playing club soccer,” said Mariah Robbins, a former Brevard Community College soccer player. “One of them was from running into a goal post though, not heading the ball.”

“From a player's standpoint, you are (equating) heading to handballs, and when you do that, you change the entire nature of the game,” said A.J. Michelotti, a youth soccer referee and pre-dental senior at the University of Florida. “You begin teaching kids to play the game wrong, which will only end up hurting our entire academy and Olympic system.”

Where would heading superstars, like Abby Wambach, be in their careers if they were never professionally trained in headers, asked Robbins.

Wambach, a former UF standout and U.S. Women’s National Team member, has more international goals than any other male or female soccer player, with 184 goals in 252 international games. Of the 184, 77 of them were headers, according to USA Today Sports' For the Win website.

Michelotti said he believes preventing headers will only foster an environment that will lead to less skilled players and concern for future U.S professional players.

“Refereeing-wise, a ref's job is to make the game run smoothly, meaning minimize the breaks from action,” said Michelotti. “Calling every header is absurd.”

Club coaches like Benjamin feel as though the protocol is necessary, but the guidelines it's suggesting are mostly already put in place.

“Our coaching staff rarely ever teaches heading to children that young, and when we do we make sure to teach the proper techniques and safety,” said Benjamin. “Even with the older-aged kids, we practice our headers using softer balls.”

Kaley is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.