Over the last few decades, soccer has become one of the most popular sports for children and teens — but with this rise has come a parallel increase in the number of concussions and injuries seen young athletes.
Concussions, in particular, are becoming especially concerning to doctors and the public alike. Studies have shown that kids who receive concussions while playing youth soccer will suffer the consequences of these concussions — including memory loss, depression, and more — long after they stop playing.
Believing that heading the ball — the practice of hitting the ball with one’s head to send it down the field — is the cause behind these concussions, a growing number of parents and doctors are calling for youth soccer organizations to ban the move for players 14 and under.
However, while it might be easy to blame concussions and other brain trauma on this move, new research shows that it might actually be rough play, not heading the ball, that’s leaving so many youth players concussed.
According to a July 14 Washington Post article, the research, conducted at the University of Colorado, reveals that 68.8% of boys’ soccer concussions and 51.3% of girls’ soccer concussions are a result of contact with another player. Heading the ball, in contrast, is responsible for roughly 25% of player concussions.
“Previous researchers discussing the safety and risk of soccer heading may have been asking the wrong question,” the researchers, whose work was published in JAMA Pediatrics, wrote. In fact, they argued, the “ball striking the head during heading has less of a role in soccer concussions than the athlete-athlete contact that occurs during contested or challenged heading opportunities.”
While still relatively rare — girls saw about five concussions per 10,000 games and practices, versus almost three per 10,000 for boys — there’s no denying that a childhood concussion can be devastating for years afterward. Because children’s brains and necks are much more vulnerable than adults’, it’s much easier for a child to receive permanent neurological damage on the soccer field.
The rate of concussion among youth soccer players becomes even more concerning when one considers the fact that soccer is the second most popular youth sport in the country. In 2014, more than three million boys and girls were registered on the U.S. Youth Soccer Annual Registration of Players.
The only way to keep this problem under control is to ensure the rules of soccer are enforced at all times in youth soccer leagues, said Bob Colgate, sports medicine director for the National Federation of State High School Associations. Additionally, youth soccer leaders and coaches must take renewed action toward keeping fighting and reckless play off the soccer field.
“Players, coaches, game officials and spectators must work together to model and demonstrate sportsmanship and fair play, to minimize risk and maximize participation,” Colgate explained.