New research came out recently that’s stirring the pot as to when kids should start heading the ball in soccer. The fierce debate has cut the medical field right down the middle.
One side of heavy hitters believe kids should avoid heading the ball completely until they reach age 14, when their brain and neck have had a chance to fully develop.
But just last week, one of the biggest researchers in the country, Dawn Comstock, released a study that stated there is absolutely no scientific evidence that waiting until age 14 to head the ball reduces the risk of concussion.
Instead, she argues kids should learn the proper technique at age 10 to 12. Heading the ball in most cases isn’t the cause of concussion, but rather head-to-head or head-to-elbow contact with another player when attempting to head the ball.
This week, I visited in studio and spoke with 1590 WAKR morning show host Ray Horner about both sides of this debate.
Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion.
DR. CONGENI: I was in Canada, yeah.
HORNER: talking on concussions? Anything new come out of that?
DR. CONGENI: … You know, that’s hockey land, so when I’m giving a talk up in Canada, you know, we talk football a lot down here, they’re talking about its affect on hockey.
But, the biggest news that’s come out is just in the last week a big article that’s really controversial and it has the medical community almost split down the middle. And, I hate to tell you that because I’m on here to try to clarify things for you …
DR. CONGENI: for coaches, for parents, but this topic for a year now is split down the middle: … when to allow kids to start heading the ball.
So in Canada, they’re clear now on there really seems to be some benefit to not allowing body checking until age 14. So, 14 is basically the cutoff of junior high school.
In soccer, there was a big push on the East Coast with some of the real big names in concussion — they came out with a white paper about 6 months ago — saying we should avoid heading the ball totally until age 14 when you get into high-school age basically.
And, you know that at all the youth levels kids head the ball. You know that it’s taught at age 10 or 11. That would be a huge change in the soccer community and several really heavy hitters in the concussion community.
One of them came up with a, uh, argument that I thought was really reasonable is that what happens when you go up to head the ball, it isn’t always just head to ball, it’s, you know, you kinda unsuspectingly hit head to elbow, head to shoulder, head to ground because you don’t know where the head’s going when you’re trying to head the ball. …
But, a paper came out this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, so a very reputable journal … and one of the biggest researchers in the country, Dawn Comstock, said that her study showed there was absolutely no scientific basis that not heading the ball up to age 14 reduced the amount of concussions at all.
And so, now there’s a group on the other side and there are some heavy hitters on that side that say, no, that actually what we’re gonna be doing is we’re going to be distracting ourselves from other ways of avoiding concussion if we tell kids not to head the ball.
That really, uh, teaching proper heading the ball at 10 to 12 is appropriate like it’s been for years and years here and not to put it off to age 14. So, it’s split right down the middle. There’s a lot of debate going on, but this paper really stirred the pot again.
HORNER: We’ve talked a lot about concussions in football, a little bit about soccer. How prevalent are concussions in soccer?
DR. CONGENI: Oh, I mean, it’s the fastest-growing sport there is. The numbers of concussions in soccer … as of a study that’s a little bit older now — gosh, concussion stuff [is] coming out so fast — [from] 2012 showed girls soccer No. 1, girls basketball No. 2 as the fastest growing sports [for concussions].
Soccer is definitely growing pretty rapidly. It’s become, if you haven’t been to soccer games recently, it’s become a much more physical game, much, much more physical.
HORNER: But, are we seeing a lot of concussions?
DR. CONGENI: Oh my gosh, for sure.
DR. CONGENI: For sure.
HORNER: Okay. Why don’t we just outlaw the head-butt?
DR. CONGENI: And gosh, down in our office we can’t get people in fast enough. So, why don’t we just outlaw what now?
HORNER: The head-butt with the ball. Why don’t we just outlaw it?
DR. CONGENI: Because this is the argument, it’s not heading the ball that actually leads to concussion at all. It’s head to head. It’s head to body. …
HORNER: But you’re trying to head the ball, which is putting your head in a bad spot.
DR. CONGENI: That’s what Dr. Cantu is saying and I tend to agree with that a little bit more, but many of the concussions occur, you know, I’ve told you this for years, over 60 percent right in the area around the goal where there’s very physical play.
It really doesn’t have to do with heading the ball at all. It’s just the physical play of somebody, you know, uh, leading with the head, head to knee, head to ground, head to foot.
HORNER: Then let’s put a helmet on ’em.
DR. CONGENI: [sigh] Yeah, helmets. You know, there’s head gear and you’ve seen that. Helmets totally change the sport. …
HORNER: I have. Are you saying it changes it where it’d be even more physical with a helmet?
DR. CONGENI: It might be more physical. That’s the argument it would be even more physical and people leading with the head.
HORNER: I can see that. Yeah.
DR. CONGENI: And so, the arguments [ask] is there enough in the risk-benefit ratio, enough good things, that come from sports and contact sports that … you know, it’s worth it?
Let’s do a better job managing concussions. Uh, let’s do a better job, uh, evaluating them early on, picking ’em up early on. Remember, there’s still those numbers of 60 percent are missed in the first week or 2 and it isn’t ’til the 2nd or 3rd one that we pick it up.
So, let’s be better with recognition. Let’s be better with management, holding them out until their brain is recovered. Let’s do those things better and there’s still so much benefit from the sport.
But this is in the balance, Ray. There’s no doubt in the next 5 to 10 years, collision sports like hockey in Canada and football, and contact sports like basketball and soccer there’s gonna be a lot of debate about what to do with these sports just like you just asked me.
HORNER: Mmhmm. Good stuff, Joe. Thanks for coming in.
DR. CONGENI: Okay.
HORNER: Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital.