Concussions make up a mere 2-3% of all injuries in soccer, but the issue may be bigger than you think. There are thousands of head injuries in soccer every year, in 2009 alone there were a reported 24,184 head injuries treated in United States emergency rooms. Even more minor head injuries go unreported and untreated. To put it in a different perspective, a McGill University Study found that more than 60% of college level soccer players reported symptoms of concussion during a single season.
The most common cause is contact with another player, this generally happens when both players contest a ball in the air. The 2nd cause is when the ball strikes a players head – note that the ball strikes the players head and the player does not have time to react. Thankfully, no concussions were caused by proper heading of the ball.
Does heading the ball cause brain damage?
Although it seems that heading the ball is minor compared to full-on head to head contact in other sports such as American Football, experts believe that accumulated less-forceful hits may become more dangerous than one jarring hit. Scans of players that headed the ball over a regular soccer season showed damage to white matter. White matter is brain tissue that helps send signals across brain regions. According to a study done by Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, players who headed the ball over 1,800 times a year are at a higher risk of scoring poorly on the memory tests. However, other studies differ with with these results, tests showed no significant difference with players heading the ball and other players avoiding to head the ball.
Collisions – The Story of Petr Čech
On October 14, 2006, Petr Čech suffered a near-fatal incident when both Čech and Reading Midfielder Stephen Hunt challenged for a ball on the edge of Chelsea’s penalty area. Čech underwent surgery for a depressed skull fracture and suffered severe headaches as a result of the collision. Čech returned against Liverpool on January 20, 2007, he now wears headgear custom made by adidas. The story of Čech is a great example on how collisions can happen to anyone and anytime during the match- his happened in the first minute of play. Collisions also occur with objects other than players, things such as goalposts and even the ground are both dangerous. It seems like every where you go on the pitch there’s an injury risk.
What you can do
Ensure that the ball is inflated correctly. I have personal experience with this, playing with almost rock solid balls for a season will make you appreciate a properly inflated one. During pre-game warm ups a teammate of mine headed a ball awkwardly and for a few minutes he had no idea where he was or recollection of what happened. He was later checked by a trainer and allowed to return to the game. Perhaps if the balls were properly inflated he wouldn’t have suffered so badly.
Fifa has since allowed the use of protective headgear and numerous players started wearing it in all levels of play. Companies such as Full90 have developed a range of headgear that you can purchase on their site. They come in a few basic colors and even feature a ponytail port so you don’t have to worry about your hairdo. They also have different sizes to accommodate all head sizes. According to one Canadian study, players who wore protective headgear had a significant decrease in risk of concussions. Although the device does not prevent concussions, it is designed to decrease the impact force of collisions by 50%.
An issues that cannot be stressed enough is proper heading. If you head the ball properly you will be at a less risk for concussions and other head injuries.
Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t hesitate when challenging others in the air but be aware that there is a collision risk. My tip is to use your body to distance yourself legally; by using your body you can keep him away from both your head and the ball.
Just like with soccer boots, its hard to tell if players are actually wearing headgear by choice or by sponsorship, or even both. A professor at UCLA, Gary Green, believes that headgear may actually increase risk of head injury by giving players a false sense of security. It could promote unnatural aggressive play that could harm all players involved. Also, as stated before, some studies have shown that there was not a significant difference between players heading the ball and those avoiding it.
I will admit that the headgear designs seem high quality- under 2 ounces and quality fabric. Companies have made an effort to make the headgear low profile but to me it still stands out like a sore thumb. I’ve only played with a select few people that have sported headgear and that is out of the many I have encountered in my short soccer career. Not many pros wear it either and those that do are likely being paid to do so. The fact is that the majority still has not accepted headgear and they fear that the helmets may alter the traditional game. There are different models but I haven’t seen a model under $25. If you ask me that is a high price to pay for something not mandatory. But will headgear ever become mandatory like shin guards? My answer is no, there is still not enough evidence that supports wearing protective headgear for Fifa to endorse. I do believe that there will be a constant increase of the widespread use in youth and recreational leagues, partly because of concerned parents but I doubt there will ever be a concrete rule making headgear mandatory in professional leagues.
What are your thoughts on headgear? Would you ever wear it and will it ever become mandatory?