Protecting our young athletes

When I was a kid I loved soccer. I was always intrigued with how pro soccer players worked the ball with such finesse. I started playing soccer in 6th grade. I loved doing drill work, learning how to pass the ball in specific ways and of course… score a goal.

One thing I always had trouble with and perhaps somehow intuitively knew wasn’t good for me was heading the ball. It frequently made me dizzy right after, my ears felt like they vibrated and rattled the force into the middle of my head and later that night I recall feeling tired and my neck and head ached.

You could chalk it up to poor technique but let’s face it, hitting a leather ball with your upper forehead is sort of like punching yourself in the head multiple times in a day. And of course I’ve been privy to having another player miss the ball and smash their forehead against mine—which is even worse.

As research has crept into sports, we are now recognizing that the force of these types of techniques impact the head are actually cause for concern. The quantity of concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) has grown over the years even with all of the technology we now have to understanding how both occur.

In recent months there’s been debate over allowing kids to learn how to head the soccer ball in fear of causing more concussions.

The football statistics show that nearly 50,000 concussion cases in a single year recorded for high school football players in 2010—this is American football, not soccer mind you—and they wear helmets.

To protect young kids from head trauma they have banned heading the ball for children under the age of 11, and restricting the number of headers they endure during practice for ages 11-13.

Although this all sounds like a good plan, I think we are missing a huge point here. If young athletes are only able to begin learning to head the ball as a pre-teen, limit the practice time to learn how to do it correctly, then limit the amount of times they can do it in a game… does that really make any sense to these soccer players once they reach age 14 and beyond? Do you really think that simply delaying a concussion to an older teenager is less damaging than when you are a youth or preteen?

If you want to help kids, boys and girls reduce concussions there’s only two ways to go:

  • Have someone devise a thin, flexible helmet made of carbon fiber and some rubber or leather type cushioning, similar to what a rugby player would wear to reduce the impact on the skull.
  • Ban heading the ball in the game and entirely change the game. The United States Soccer Federation announced in November that it will ban headers for young players following a lawsuit alleging negligence in treating head injuries.

Getting head trauma in soccer I must say is most likely no less severe than in football however, head impact happens far more often in football than in soccer by a landslide. In a given game, I recall maybe having to head the ball once or twice—and frequently never. But in football, these guys are not heading the ball, they are smashing into other players helmets with massive force, acceleration, and intention than in soccer. Their heads get whipped backwards and sideways, and their cervical spine takes blows more powerful than getting hit in the rear of your car by a Mack truck. The sport has such violent collisions so often I can barely watch games without feeling like I must do something to help these players offset the demands of the game itself.

So what’s the resolve there? Are we going to go back to touch football? I highly doubt it. What’s worse is that football players have very high tendencies to sustain not just concussions but chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disorder lined to repeated blows to the head. This is what commonly leads to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Basically, the nerve cells waste away or die and can’t send messages to the muscles anymore. Ultimately the message to contract the respiratory diaphragm—the muscle of breathing loses connection and, well, without oxygen… you get my point here.

I don’t think decreasing the heading practice to obtain the skill is the answer for the soccer issue of TBI and concussions. I think protecting their heads seems a better route and reducing how many times you can head the ball… maybe that’s something to explore, but the truth is, unless all teams abide by some rule a governing body is instilling on their sport – which will change the sport forever, concussions will happen, athletes have a high tendency to endure TBI, loss of memory, motor functions, and pay consequences years after they stop playing the sport.

Maybe we should all engage in non-contact sports, learn to play an instrument, and use our heads for more useful things like reading a book.

In the meantime, if you are an athlete, check out my recent blog about performance athletes and benefits of MELT to your sport. If you are playing one of these sports with impact, I would suggest learning how to do the MELT hand treatments and the neck release sequence to keep your connective tissue as responsive as possible.

Good luck young athletes.

MELT Hand And Foot Kit v2

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