Minimising risk: ban on kids heading ball during soccer training

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

The UK has banned football headers during training for kids aged 11 amid sweeping changes to football association guidelines in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Wales is yet to adopt the changes, which have come after a Scottish study revealed that footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of brain-related disease such as dementia.

The English Football Association, together with Scottish FA and Irish FA, announced that there would now be "no heading in training in the foundation phase." This age group captures children up to 11 years of age.

Headers for players aged up to 16 will be of a "low priority" in training, however will gradually become more frequent in training until the age of 18.

The BBC reports, "There will be no changes to heading in youth matches, where the FA said headers are rare."

Calls have been growing in Australia for similar measures, with concussion experts urging Football Federation Australia to take action.

Associate Professor Alan Pearce, a concussion researcher at La Trobe University, and Professor Michael Buckland, head of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital's neuropathology department, both told The Sydney Morning Herald in November last year, that the significant findings of the study should inspire the FFA to, "at the very least, cut down on heading training at a youth level."

The SMH spoke to Joey Didulica, a former international-level goalkeeper, who said he had more than 20 concussions and now suffers "daily debilitating headaches and pain," and is unable to work full-time.

While concussion rates and degenerative brain disease have been a focus of other football codes, soccer has largely been left out of the conversation.

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New UK football guidelines:

  • Covers age groups between under-six and under-18.
  • No headers in training for children up to under-11.
  • Under-12 players limited to one session a month with a maximum of five headers.
  • Under-13 age groups will have one session a week
  • Balls to be inflated to the lowest pressure possible
  • Ball size guidelines for each age group

The UK Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham said, "This updated heading guidance is an evolution of our current guidelines and will help coaches and teachers to reduce and remove repetitive and unnecessary heading from youth football."

"Our research has shown that heading is rare in youth football matches, so this guidance is a responsible development to our grassroots coaching without impacting the enjoyment that children of all ages take from playing the game."

The study did not reveal a direct link between heading footballs and brain trauma, however the FA is taking action to "mitigate against any potential risks."

Dr William Stewart, a lead author of the University of Glasgow study, said that the new guidelines made sense until more is known about brain trauma in sport, and thinks the measures should be expanded to include other football codes and contact sports.

"A lot more research is needed to understand the factors contributing to increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in footballers. Meanwhile it is sensible to act to reduce exposure to the only recognised risk factor so far."

A spokesperson for Football Federation Australia said in a statement, "Football Federation Australia (FFA) is aware of the announcement by the (English) Football Association (FA) updating heading guidance for players under the age of 12 during training sessions."

"Player welfare is of paramount importance to FFA, and we continue to monitor research and liaise with all relevant sporting and governing organisations, including the FA and world governing body FIFA. We will be reviewing our guidelines in light of the latest developments."