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Getting the ball rolling on safe headers

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Keeping players safe while maintaining the fundamentals of the game of soccer is a tricky balance to nail. Dr. Sara Chrisman, a pediatrician at UW Medicine Sports Institute, is working to get the ball rolling on the technique behind safe soccer headers.   

In soccer and other sports, addressing common injuries is a contentious topic. Many sports played today have been around for decades, so any alteration, even to address players’ health, can be slow to implement. Regardless, the need for better injury prevention is clear. Each of the 64 matches of the 1998 World Cup drew an average of 500 million viewers, with the final reaching one billion. These stats easily cement soccer as the most popular sport in the world and present a clear need for research into the safety of performing a header.

A header is loosely defined as any contact made with the ball using one’s head They serve as the only way to interact with a ball that’s been kicked up into the air. This makes headers a common and versatile maneuver, useful for passing, shooting, or clearing the ball away from one’s own goal. 

Headers are also one of the only techniques in sports performed with the head without any helmet or other protection. Despite this, there is little done to teach children the proper technique in youth soccer. 

“Most leagues will not introduce heading until kids are 11 years old, but there’s not a standardized way of introducing heading to kids and teaching them how to head the ball safely,” Chrisman said in a press release.

A header can result in injury in two ways. The first is via impact with the ball itself. Soccer balls aren’t very heavy but can be sent flying with a strong kick. Combined with a player’s own velocity, headers can result in damage to the head and neck if the technique is performed improperly. 

The more common cause of injury is a collision between multiple players in mid-air during a header. Since headers tend to occur when players are densely packed, such as in free kicks, nearly all of them result in multiple players jumping to vie for the ball simultaneously. 

“Almost all headers are contested,” Chrisman said. “So there’s a much greater risk of colliding with another player, and that’s the type of collision that’s more likely to cause a concussion.”

There have been other recent attempts to teach players how to avoid injury, most notably the 11+, a set of exercises published by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) recommends that the exercises be performed as a warm-up prior to practice. 

A study by FIFA on the program’s effectiveness found that teams who practiced the 11+ at least twice a week had 37% less injuries during training and 29% fewer during actual games. Most significantly, the rate of severe injuries was reduced by nearly 50%.

The difference between programs like this and Chrisman’s routine is the type of injuries they focus on. Most safety measures aim to educate players about knee injuries, while Chrisman aims to spread awareness about concussions. 

While both can be detrimental to a player’s health, concussions are especially insidious because repeatedly injuring one’s brain can result in increasingly worse consequences. If a player receives a concussion and injures their brain further within six to 18 months, any further damage to the brain is compounded and can result in long-term detriments to the player’s health, lasting well past their time playing soccer.

Chrisman’s program is designed to help players jump into the air safely, remaining aware of both their position and the relative location of others. The first pilot program has already been conducted, and Chrisman is optimistic that the stats drawn from the trial run will result in a safer game for everyone. 

Above all, Chrisman seeks to cut down on injuries while still preserving soccer’s appeal.

“As you’re watching the World Cup, I think you’ll really see some amazing control of the ball with heading and space, and that’s what we’re trying to get these kids toward, is both performance and safety,” Chrisman said. 

Reach reporter Kai Gallagher at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @KaiFGallagher

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