Concussion fears prompt youth soccer leagues to put restrictions on headers – Chattanooga Times Free Press


Brain injuries is the focus of a the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith, that was released Christmas Day. The film portrays Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who fought against efforts by National Football League to suppress his research on the brain damage suffered by professional football players. The film is based on the 2009 GQ magazine exposé Game Brain by Jeanne Marie Laskas.

Sports brain injuries are the subject of a highly anticipated new movie Concussion and mounting research.

In some areas, changes are resulting. Under pressure from lawsuits and public opinion, the nation’s governing body for soccer is taking some of the air out of the most popular sport on the planet.

The U.S. Soccer Federation announced last month new safety initiatives about headers — hitting the ball with the head — that reach from USA training facilities down to local recreational leagues. Winning header battles often is described as strength “in the air.”

The U.S. Soccer regulations will be required for its youth national teams and academies, including Major League Soccer youth squads and, locally, the Chattanooga Football Club Academy and others. They are only guidelines for other programs not under U.S. Soccer control. A proposed class-action lawsuit was dismissed against U.S. Soccer and others after the initiatives were issued.

“They’re not going to be stopping games,” Chattanooga Football Club Academy director Matt Yelton said of the directive. “The recommendations are about teaching the skill at the relevant age for when a player is ready to learn that skill.”

The U.S. Soccer initiatives for youth players are intended to reduce the number and impacts of concussions in the game. Players ages 10 and under in U.S. Soccer-sanctioned leagues will be prohibited from heading the ball at any time in a game or practice. Those aged 11-13 will have limited headers during practice time to learn the skill of advancing the ball with their heads.

“The more we’re starting to learn about concussions and protocol, the better,” said Carrie Hill, coach of the East Hamilton High School girls’ team. “We can’t risk the lives of 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds.”

Girls, it seems, are the most impacted. A study published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics showed 8.2 percent of girl players’ concussions were from head contact with the ball. For boys, that accounted for 4.7 percent of concussions. A smaller study also in the medical journal found 30.3 percent of concussions in female middle school players was from headers.

The problem for Chattanooga-area coaches at the youth and high school levels, however, is when a 14-year-old joins a club or high school team, his or her heading skills will not be as developed as players from previous generations. It’s akin to a young basketball player not learning a proper shooting technique.

“That’s why it’s important to teach the skill at the appropriate age,” Yelton said. “It’s like going to elementary school. If you can’t read or write, then you shouldn’t go to middle school.

“The concussion issue is a large issue in youth sports, but the heading thing is about teaching how to do it properly.”

“We will look to implement the regulations into our teaching,” Yelton said. “I do think it is a wise change. Necks and heads and body strength don’t develop until later in life, and those are key components of being able to meet the ball with an equal amount of force and not injuring a player.”

U.S. Soccer Federation said the initiatives are based on the advice of the organization’s medical committee. That’s similar to a baseball pitcher being discouraged from throwing curveballs early in his development.

“We are focusing on trying to train players to do it right,” said North River Soccer Association president Mark Harrison. “They’re creating guidance for doing it properly.

“A volunteer dad is now going to steer away from causing damage to his players.”

During the 2013-14 season, 49,307 Tennessee children played in U.S. Soccer Federation youth leagues, and Georgia had 78,943 competing.

Matt Wood has four children who played in the Redoubt Soccer Association. Those children now range in age from 8 to 17.

“I’m glad that they’re doing a thing to make soccer safer, but I’m not sure that it’s needed,” Wood said. “I don’t think anybody has ever had a concussion from heading the ball correctly. My kids have headed the ball every way possible, and I’ve never felt that they got hurt.”

Hill had three players miss games this year due to concussions. Only one of the three came from attempting to head the ball. The most significant head injury occurred to a girl who was struck in the back of the head by another player and missed most of the season.

“She had a lot of symptoms that lasted a while,” Hill said. “She was kneed in the head; then her head hit the ground.”

“Heading the ball is part of the game,” said Baylor coach Curtis Blair, who guided his girls’ team to the Division II-AA state championship game. “The No. 1 thing is protection of our players. It used to be girls having ACL (knee) injuries; now it’s all about concussions.”

Contact David Uchiyama at or 423-757-6484. Follow him at


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