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  • U.S. Soccer Promulgates New Rules Regarding Headers:

    What Impact Will They Have?

    On November 2, 2015, the United State Soccer Federation (“US Soccer”), the United States Youth Soccer Association (“USYS”), the American Youth Soccer Organization (“AYSO”),  US Club Soccer (“US Club”), and the California Youth Soccer Association, issued a joint statement that would bring changes to the way youth soccer is played.  In pertinent part, the statement said:

    The United States Soccer Federation and the other youth member defendants, with input from counsel for the plaintiffs, have developed a sweeping youth soccer initiative designed to . . . (d) eliminate heading for children 10 and under and limit heading in practice for children between the ages of 11 and 13.

    This statement, along with the rules promulgated in its wake, were part of the settlement agreement that ended a class-action lawsuit whose named plaintiffs alleged that they or their children were “at an increased risk of latent brain injuries caused by repeated head impacts” and the accumulation of concussive or subconcussive hits to the head.

    The plaintiff’s complaint in the Mehr case cites many facts and figures regarding concussions and soccer, including the fact that in 2010 there were more than 45,000 concussions sustained among high school soccer players - more than were sustained among basketball, baseball, wrestling and softball players combined.[3]  In fact, many studies have found that in high school athletics only football players experience a higher rate of concussions than girls’ soccer players.

    Despite the statistics cited in the Mehr complaint, many observers offer competing viewpoints on what represents the biggest threat to brain health among youth soccer players.  A real problem with the new rules that are being promulgated is that no one really knows a) the best solution to minimize the likelihood of concussion and potential brain injury in youth soccer players while b) recognizing that heading the ball is an integral part of the game that young players need to learn in order to protect themselves and be successful on an elite level.

    That concussions are a part of soccer is nothing new to parents who routinely watch from the sidelines, but one has to wonder what the impact of US Soccer’s rule changes will be.  In an effort to reduce the number of head injuries for very young soccer players, US Soccer has completely banned heading for players who are 10 years old and younger.   This seems to makes sense.  In addition to allowing these players the opportunity to develop physically before subjecting them to repeated strikes to the head, there are plenty of other skills for them to master such that the years of development are not wasted. 

    The less clear-cut rule change is the one which would allow players between the ages of 11 and 14 to head the ball in games but not in practice.  Despite the continually increasing awareness of concussions and sport-caused brain injury, this proposed rule change has its critics.  Such critics are not convinced that headers are a significant cause of short- or long-term brain injury in youth athletes, and they do not believe concussions will be significantly reduced by the enforcement of the new rules.  To support their argument, they cite studies such as one conducted of men’s and women’s college soccer teams by the Atlantic Coast Conference.  The study found that of 20 concussions that were found to have occurred during the period studied, “none resulted from intentional heading of the ball.”[4]  Similarly, a leading sports medicine physician said, “’I’ve only seen one instance of a concussion resulting from heading the ball.’”[5]  Some of these critics conclude that enforcing the rules of the game would be more effective at preventing concussions than eliminating headers:  “’[US Soccer is] willing to completely eliminate a phase of play,’ she says, ‘But nobody is willing to address the elephant in the room, which is rough play.’”[6] 

    In a vacuum, the proposed rule changes might not be controversial, but many believe that limiting headers among youth players will have a marked impact on the competitiveness of youth players and a detrimental effect on the development of soccer in the United States.  These opponents of the new rules believe they “will lead to slower development of an integral soccer skill” and will potentially widen the gap for US players competing against the world’s best.[7]

    Another big issue with the rule change affecting 11-14 year olds is limiting headers to games.  Since the players will not have been allowed to head the ball at all before the age of 11, an 11 year old’s first experience heading the ball will come in a game situation.  Faced with this situation for the first time, having no experience to draw on, can anyone reasonably expect that such a player will have any idea how to properly head the ball, how to tense muscles at just the right moment, or how to ensure the ball is struck with the proper part of the head?  Certainly not.

    An argument for disallowing headers in practice is based on the idea that the dangerous part of headers is the cumulative effect of heading the ball dozens of time (or more) over the course of many practices and games.  Following this argument, it would make sense that eliminating headers from practices would reduce the number of total blows and therefore the likelihood of brain injury.  However, by eliminating headers from practices, young soccer players do not have the opportunity to learn the correct technique for heading the ball before trying it in a game situation.  In fact, an 11 year old player will have four years of heading the ball to look forward to without ever learning the proper way to do it.  The problem with this of course is that cumulative subconcussive impacts are not the only danger that headers create.  Any single blow to the head can cause a concussion, and the probability of any single blow causing injury depends on a variety of factors, one of the greatest of which is technique.

    Striking a soccer ball with the head is not a simple maneuver, and the “tips” for avoiding injury are many:  keep your eye on the ball, make contact with your forehead, don’t make contact with the crown or side of your head, keep your shoulders and neck in line with your head, don’t close your eyes until you make contact, push through the ball on contact.  That is a lot to remember for an 11 year old who has never attempted to head the ball.  Expecting that such a youth player will strike the ball correctly is unreasonable.  And the result of a poorly struck ball could very well be a concussion.  In fact, many believe that “[m]ost concussions stemming from heading a soccer ball come from improper techniques of heading the ball.”[8]  To mitigate this, AYSO, in its “AYSO Heading Policy” by John Ouellette, the AYSO National Coach/Technical Director, says that after 10 years old “the proper heading techniques need to be introduced to prepare the player for proper execution.”[9]  Yet, US Soccer’s newly promulgated rules would specifically prohibit the practicing of the proper heading technique, potentially resulting in greater rates of injury in youth players.

    US Soccer’s newly promulgated rules are undoubtedly well intentioned.  However, the impact of the rules remains to be seen, and it is unclear what their effect will be.  Will soccer in the United States become less competitive?  Perhaps.  But the greater unknown is whether the rules will actually reduce the head injuries sustained by youth soccer players.  Only time will tell.

    [2] Rachel Mehr et al. v. Federation Internationale de Football Association et al., No. 14-cv-3879, Compl. ¶40 (N.D. Cal).

    [3] Id. at ¶3.

    [4] Boden, BP; Kirkendall, DT; Garrett, WE Jr. “Concussion Incidence in Elite College Soccer Players,”

    [5] Senior, Robert, “Using Your Head in Girl’s Soccer,” (Oct. 18, 2012).

    [6] Rack, Jessie, “Would Banning Headers in Soccer Solve the Concussion Problem?” (July 14, 2015).

    [7] Draper, Kevin, “U.S. Soccer Bans Headers for Players Under 11 to Resolve Concussion Lawsuit,” (Nov. 10, 2015).

    [9] Ouellette, John, “AYSO Heading Policy: Is Heading Safe?”