In early November US Soccer announced a revolutionary approach to addressing a controversial topic in youth soccer, concussions. US Soccer has sought to ban heading from any player who is age 10 and younger, and only allow heading in games for players until they are 13. The news has caught the attention of the global soccer community and certainly has various coaches and soccer purest wondering why such a drastic measure is necessary to address this issue.
There are positives to come from this heading ban. Any time you can encourage the ball to be kept on the ground during a soccer game, technically gifted players will excel. Players will be encouraged to pass their way out of pressure rather than lump the ball down the field gifting the other team possession. The USA is notorious for developing technically inept players who struggle with the technique of passing and receiving at the pace of the highest levels. This ban will enhance the environment where these techniques are encouraged to be acted upon in training and games. In the 8v8 game it is best to see keepers throw the ball or put it at their feet in order to distribute rather than setting up a situation where a header is needed and possibly a collision could occur. This new ban will certainly encourage players to focus on possession of the ball rather than who is more willingly to head the ball at a young age in order to win the ball back on goal kicks and punts from the keeper.
The concussion problem in soccer is caused by various situations on the field. I myself had one major concussion, and various other times where I needed stitching on my head or fell hard, all from collisions with opponents and teammates while attempting to head the ball. So I do see a lot of positives in this ban, heading is ultimately unnecessary at a young age. Around the time a player is 13 it is logical to begin to teach players proper techniques and how to properly head the ball. In order to avoid collisions with others, players should be taught how to protect themselves in the air by using their arms and body to avoid other players jumping into them. Players should be taught when to jump and when to back off and attempt to win the second ball after the header is made. This lesson will teach a player that it is not always necessary to win headers directly from punts or goal kicks, but the second ball is what will allow you to retain possession.
There is always an argument to any new law or idea that is implemented, and so far I have seen a couple which do have valid points. Not teaching proper heading techniques while a player is young is essentially changing a player’s way of seeing the game. I could not imagine how many world class strikers would have had completely different experiences with the game had they not been introduced to heading as a youngster. I was not there when Brian McBride or Tim Cahill were young players, but I am sure by the time they were 13 they both had their fair share of headed goals. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but it is an interesting discussion to have.
With that being said the technique of heading, is comparable in my eyes to American Football, it is not very difficult to learn and it does not need to taught at a young age for players to end up very good when they are older. Of course scoring goals with your head is a skill that needs to be mastered and perfected on the training ground, but why not wait to introduce this skill until the player is old enough to know they have the potential to perform the skill regularly. Being an average sized center midfielder, I can honestly say in the hundreds of games I have played I have scored twice with my head. That may be due to my horrific technique in front of goal, but may also have to do with how small I am compared to the opposing center backs I am dueling with. I think there is no way to avoid heading all together in the game, but I think we can get to a point where the action is performed as minimally as possible, which in the end will help control the amount of collisions and hard landings that seem to be causing the majority of the injuries and concussions.
You also get the argument from a lot of the foreign influences in American soccer that heading is good enough for the rest of the world, why does America feel it needs to change the game? But why not? Why can’t US Soccer be on the forefront of the revolution to keep players safe and encourage an attractive style of soccer? A style which promotes skill and flare rather than brute strength and willingness to put your head where your foot should be. I have no problem with this ban during the younger stages of a player’s career as it can only encourage players to keep the ball on the ground, heading can always be taught at an older age when the player’s strength and development have prepared him or her for any possible collision or contact that may occur when heading a ball. In a lot of instances, we struggle with change, especially if it was something that we feel lead to our development as a strong players and people. Winning headers, tackles, and 50/50 balls are always something I personally took pride in as a central midfield player. But as the game develops in this country, the more skillful players become at a younger age, the more likely we are to be able to succeed on a global level. The game may not be as physical as it once was, but the more we focus on keeping the players safe and ideas that may lead to the technical ability of American players improving, I believe the better we are in the long term.