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The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)

How young is too young for soccer players to be heading the ball? A group wants the practice to be delayed until players have reached the age of 14 to help reduce the risk of brain injuries, but universal acceptance won't be easy.

Former U.S. women's World Cup stars and brain injury specialists have teamed up to form Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer, which is advocating for a later start for heading in the game.

Cindy Parlow Cone, a World Cup champion in 1999, told NPR that by the time she was 14 she had probably headed the ball over 1,000 times.

That's a concern because of the growth the brain should experience during the years between 10 and 14. Dr. Robert Cantu of the Sports Legacy Institute, which advocates for higher awareness of risks for head injuries, told the New York Times that a child's brain is forming cognitive and mood pathways between the ages of 10 and 12.

"If we were to take a pillow and slam it as hard as we could against a child's head, again and again, we would be charged with child abuse," he told the newspaper. "But that's exactly what it's like when a player is hit in the head with a ball from pretty close."

But not everyone wants to rush into changes that could significantly alter the way the game is taught.

Jim Launder, the director of coaching for the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association, said coaches are already advised not to introduce heading until players are around 10 years old because younger players have a hard time judging the flight of a ball in the air and lack neck strength.

And when heading is taught, he said, it's introduced slowly and with precautions so that it's done properly.

"With younger kids it's important to teach them how to head the ball, not let the ball head you," said Launder, a former Wisconsin men's soccer coach who led the Badgers to the 1995 national championship.

"That's why I think a lot of people look at a certain age for not having heading in. It seems to me like 14's pretty old to avoid it because the ball's going to go up in the air. You'd have to change the game significantly, I think, if you want to avoid it. Like make the goals 2 feet high or something like that."

A study released last year of 37 amateur adult soccer players showed that frequent heading can cause brain abnormalities like those found in people who have had a concussion.

Launder, however, said he isn't convinced that heading can be linked to brain injuries.

"There's no good way to do an experiment and see whether actual heading causes any kind of brain trauma," he said. "But I would be amazed if it did. We did some looking at heading and so on, and the concussion incidences that occur tend to be from jarring incidents."

The age for teaching heading, Launder said, is based in part on when a player has developed neck strength to keep his or her head steady.

Head injuries from youth sports are a growing concern, but Launder doesn't want to jump to conclusions in soccer.

"I think it's something that we need to watch and look at and be careful of," he said, "but I'm not sure we need to jump all over ideas yet."

July 3, 2014
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