What Happens When Youth Soccer Players Stop Using Their Heads?
Soccer has undergone some drastic changes as of late. VAR has heeded the call of more precise refereeing, goal-line technology has finally been implemented, and a fourth sub can now enter the field during the extra time period as witnessed during in the World Cup.
While the professional landscape has recently undergone a series of procedures, the youth game has also been the recipient of contentious changes.
The United States Soccer Federation has a history of bucking traditional soccer rules. However, in 2015 they made their most audacious rule change of them all. As of 2016 heading was banned for all American youth soccer players aged 10 and younger.
A restriction of heading for 30 minutes a week was placed on players aged 11-13. With one rule change, the US Soccer Federation had unwoven the fabric of soccer.
America’s governing body of soccer was pressured into making the rule change after a 2014 class-action lawsuit was filed in California against US Soccer, FIFA, and the American Youth Organization. The suit argued that the aforementioned organizations demonstrated "negligence in treating and monitoring head injuries.”
The case came to a close when the US Soccer Federation placed restrictions on youth players from heading the ball. This rule change served as a resolution in the case. The federation also felt pressure from the general public along with a host of big-name soccer players such as Brandi Chastain and Taylor Twellman who notably retired due to concussion-related brain damage.
To be clear, the jury is still out as to whether the actual act of heading the soccer ball is the primary cause of concussions. It’s largely believed that the player-to-player contact that occurs during the contesting of a header lead to concussions.
Doctors still aren’t certain of the severity of brain damage that accompanies playing competitive soccer at the youth level. Doctors have though concluded that repeated heading leads to disorganized brain tissue which in turn lowers one’s cognitive ability.
The purists will claim that the federation has created an entirely new sport while concerned parents nation-wide will be relieved that their child’s risk of brain damage has been decreased. While the extent of brain damage rendered from contesting a header is debatable, the rule is final. Now the question is how the game will change as an effect of the recent law change.
The gut reaction is that American youth soccer will become second-rate in comparison to their European and South American cousins. Taking away a player’s right to head the ball will hinder their progress on the field, leading to inept soccer players. Yet if we examine the issue closely we can find a few positives.
The rule is a mere two years old which means that we still don’t know what impact it will have on the quality of youth soccer. However, one can infer that a series of tactical changes will take place leading to the production of more technically gifted youth players.
Stripping the game of a fundamental element such as heading is expected to bring about changes. In the coming years, we may well see teams emphasizing playing the ball on the ground. Constantly keeping the ball on the floor may create more technically precocious players.
If we take a look at the best players in the world, few are renown for their heading ability apart from Ronaldo and perhaps Harry Kane. Messi, Neymar, De Bryne, and Modric are all wizards with their feet. It’s easy to not pick out a teammate and blindly boot the ball forward. What’s difficult is controlling a pass, lifting your head up and finding an open teammate.
This isn’t to say that long balls will be done away with. However, instead of using one’s head to advance the ball, players will now have to jockey for position and control the ball with their chests, thighs, and feet.
Expect more set plays to take place off corner kicks and dead ball situations. Since players can no longer head the ball directly from a corner, teams will have to get crafty during dead ball situations.
Doing away with heading the ball means other body parts will be called into use to manipulate the ball. Although heading will be an integral part of the game as players age, learning how to change the direction of the ball with one’s head is a much easier skill than controlling a lofted pass with one’s thigh or foot. Forcing players to use different parts of the body in situations where a header would be more convenient will accelerate their technical ability.
It’s doubtful that forbidding headers at the youth level will be the auspicious change necessary to beget World Cup winning caliber players. But two things are for sure. One is that Americans will have fewer concussions at the youth level than any other country. Secondly, we’ll learn to use our feet, which without a doubt are a soccer player’s most important instrument.