Dure: U.S. Soccer takes good first step with heading initiative
Let’s say you’re a parent coach of a bunch of U-10s. You’ve heard heading the ball might be harmful for young players. Where do you turn for guidance?
Not to your licensing courses, though they now include helpful tips on concussion awareness. Probably not to your club.
Someone needed to step forward and lead the way. At last, U.S. Soccer has done that, recommending the elimination of heading for children 10 and under and limited exposure through age 13.
The heading rules aren’t the most stringent, nor are they easy to enforce. Nor are they the end of the discussion. Safer Soccer, an organization backed by several retired national team players, is pushing clubs to ban heading for children under age 14.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” retired U.S. Women’s National Team legend Brandi Chastain told SoccerWire.com this week.
“What we wanted was U.S. Soccer to take a stand and say this is an issue for us, and that as leaders in the world of soccer, we’re going to make a statement. It’s a good first start, but it’s not far enough.”
At the very least, maybe the U.S. Soccer announcement will make clubs stop running their U-8s through heading drills and teaching U-10s to whack aerial crosses to the kid in the 90th percentile on the growth chart. And coaches will finally get a bit of guidance.
Until now, we’ve just had a vague idea that we’re wrong to teach heading too young. And that’s true.
It’s wrong from a medical point of view because youngsters’ brains are not fully developed, leaving them more susceptible to damage that we don’t even see until it’s too late. Young players also have weaker neck muscles, giving kids what Dr. Robert Cantu calls “a bobblehead doll effect.”
It’s also wrong from a player development point of view, as Mike Woitalla explains:
“There’s no convincing case that heading needs to be introduced at the early ages. In fact, the heading scenarios that most frequently occur at the lower ages come from goalkeeper punts. And those should be discouraged anyway if we’re aiming to teach kids good soccer, to keep possession, and play out of the back.”
Chastain sees ways to prepare kids for aerial battles to come.
“You can definitely learn the technique of how you use your legs, your core — you can learn the body positioning with a balloon, a Nerf ball, a beach ball. What you’re going to teach at the same time is spatial awareness, how to use their arms to protect themselves, so when pressure is coming, how they can insulate themselves from pressure.
“Unfortunately, if we allow younger players to head the ball, they don’t get that. The only thing they’re focusing on is the ball. They stick their head out first, and then their head is the first thing that can run into other people.”
So it’s not just harmful to have kids repeatedly heading the ball, accumulating subconcussive hits in their developing brains, but it’s counterproductive. U.S. Soccer has every reason to act.
Top-down management of the youth game beyond the Development Academy isn’t the norm for U.S. Soccer. The recent mandates on birth-year age groups and small-sided games have been clumsy.
But in this case, U.S. Soccer has picked a better battle. It will indeed be a battle, with legions of traditionalist coaches and pundits complaining about a “nanny state” any time a central organization tries to impose a safety regulation, and we still need some clarity on what we’re teaching and how to teach it.
That’s the road ahead — a road toward a safer and better game.
Beau Dure’s new book, Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game, is now available in paperback at Amazon and in electronic form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online booksellers. Read more about it at SportsMyriad.