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Should Players be Required to Wear Safety Gear for Protection?

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Should players be required to wear safety gear for protection?

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Soccer is the only contact sport, save perhaps rugby, in which players' heads are routinely and legally used to influence the flow of the game, yet players are not required to wear headgear.

With concussions hanging over the sports world's collective conscience in recent years, little light has been definitively shed on the possible long-term effects that heading soccer balls might have on soccer players. One study released last year at the annual meeting of the American Psychology Association involved 26 college and six professional soccer players. On tests of reaction time and ability to deduce unstated rules of a card game, the players did 12 to 16 percent worse on average than a control group of swimmers.

Other evidence is anecdotal. Sasha Hunter (No. 15 in the photo), a forward for the Arizona Thunder of the World Indoor Soccer League, claims to have suffered a dozen or so concussions in his lifetime, mostly from collisions with other players that caused Hunter to hit his head on the playing surface. His most serious head injury, however, resulted from a header he attempted four years ago. "I went up to head the ball and it hit me in the temple," Hunter told The Arizona Republic. "It blitzed me out. I was in the hospital for eight days and was partially paralyzed on the left side of my body."

A few manufacturers have been quick to market soccer helmets and padded headbands to a safety-obsessed nation of soccer parents, but some close to the sport question whether headgear is even necessary.

"The research that's been done on this topic so far is inconclusive," says Jim Sheldon, executive director of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. "Most of the studies have dealt with very small samples in terms of number of players. A lot of studies don't distinguish between the impact of heading a ball and other causes of head injuries in soccer, and my gut feeling is that most serious head injuries in soccer do not come from contact with the ball. And none of the headgear on the market that I'm aware of has been thoroughly tested and can conclusively prevent a problem, if indeed there is a problem."

Hunter says he now avoids headers in practice and even in games, and until more is learned about the long-term effects of heading, coaches of youth players would be wise to preach a similar approach. "Our basic recommendation at the NSCAA is that at the Under-12 or lower age levels, kids shouldn't spend any great time on heading," Sheldon says. "I coach my 10-year-old's team, and once or twice a season I may lightly lob balls at them, just to make sure they understand the technique of how to properly head a ball."

Barry Boden, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the men's Under-17 and Under-20 U.S. National Teams, is currently setting up separate studies of his own. One will examine the incidence of concussions in youth soccer players. The other will follow the careers of players who join the National Team at age 16, subjecting the players to annual neurological tests over a 30-year period to see how many concussions they sustain compared to estimates of how many times they head the ball. Test results will be compared to those of a control group. "People don't want to wait that long," says Boden, "but that's the only way we're really going to get a good answer."

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