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Heading Off Tragedy
By Mary Stucky
September 9, 1999
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One of the more spectacular moves in soccer is the "header," where a player soars in the air to smack the ball into the net with a well-placed nod of the head. In recent months, there has been rising concern among soccer parents caused by reports heading may damage young brains.

A study reported in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association found possible risk of chronic traumatic brain injury for amateur soccer players. The report concludes that due to the worldwide popularity of soccer the observations could have important public-health implications. Now a pair of Twin Cities "soccer dads" have come up with what they hope is an answer: a protective headband. However, there's disagreement over whether this kind of protection is really needed.

A North Dakota researcher determined "Headers" reduce the strain on the brain at impact by half, but first kids have to be willing to wear them.
Photo: Euan Kerr
IT LOOKS AND SOUNDS like it hurts. Soccer ball meets head.

If done right, the header can be devastatingly effective in a soccer game. But some worry it can be just plain devastating to players themselves. Jostling the brain from impact with a soccer ball, another head, foot, or even goalpost damages brains, according to at least one study of professional soccer players in Holland. Researchers found impaired brain function among the soccer pros compared to a control group. Studies continue, with some expected soon on children, but more and more experts are convinced that there is a risk of head injuries in the game of soccer.
Long: The American Academy of Pediatrics has come out and classified soccer as a contact sport because there are as many concussions in soccer as there are in football.
That's Bob Long, a former St. Paul City Council member, attorney, soccer dad, and - along with his friend George Halverson - developer of the new protective soccer headgear called "Headers." A few years ago, Long's young son got a concussion in a soccer game. He went looking for some head protection for the boy, and found nothing. Soon, Long and Halverson started tinkering.
Long: We went out and started monkeying around with a headband idea. And we had our 10-year-old sons working with us in the backyard, and of course we used a professional testing and design firm, but conceptually it started out cutting a piece of life preserver up and sewing it into a ski headband to try it out.
Headers are simply padded headbands designed to absorb impact without affecting the way the soccer ball performs. A North Dakota researcher hired by Long determined Headers reduce by half the strain on the brain at impact. But first kids have to be willing to wear them.

Head Injury Symptoms
The following symptoms after a head injury call for immediate medical evaluation:


Disorientation and confusion

Loss of consciousness

Loss of memory of events surrounding injury


Blurred vision or double vision

Difficulty swallowing

Slurred speech



Source: American Medical Association
At a recent soccer camp in Saint Paul, just a handful of kids were wearing the Headers. Some older kids thought it decidedly unbecoming. But some pediatricians worry if it doesn't hurt, kids might do too much heading. Dr. Stephan Anderson, Chair of the Committee on Sports Medicine of the American Academy of Pediatrics, worries even minor jostling of the brain can cause problems. Anderson says the headgear may give a false sense of protection since stress on the brain comes not just from the impact of ball, but simply from the head suddenly moving forward in the attempt to make contact.
Anderson: It can tear some blood vessels and cause some damage without any direct blows or impact to the brain and helmets tend to be better at preventing direct blows to the skull but are not going to necessarily prevent that acceleration deceleration which can cause the brain to slosh around in the skull. From a biomechanics standpoint, I'm just not optimistic that's going to be enough to eliminate the stresses that have potential to cause injury.
Instead, Anderson says kids should not do drills in which they head the ball repeatedly, and they should stop playing for some time after any head injury.

Several companies are developing their own headgear which causes some soccer observers to predict head protection may eventually be required. There was a time when soccer players didn't wear shin guards either; now they're universal. Those promoting the headgear argue it's ridiculous to protect shins and not heads, but Buzz Lagos, coach of the Minnesota Thunder professional team, says in his 30 years with the sport, he just hasn't seen significant head injuries. Lagos does recommend the headband, though, to develop good heading technique.
Lagos: It provides a nice point of impact where you're supposed to head the ball. They're very comfortable to wear and they're comfortable when you stroke the ball, so they take away the fear factor.
In a three-year study of high school athletes in 10 varsity sports, certified athletic trainers at 235 high schools reported 23,566 sports injuries, of which 1,219 (5.5%) were mild traumatic brain injuries (concussions). Based on these data, the authors estimate that the annual incidence of mild TBI in high school athletes participating in the 10 sports is 62,816 cases, of which 63% occur among football players.

Source: Journal of the American Medical Association TEXT
Across the field, Nate Winkle, a player with the Twin City Tornados, has tried and rejected the idea of wearing the Headers. Winkle doesn't think he's suffered any injury from heading, but might recommend protection for youngsters.
Winkle:A lot of kids close their eyes when they head the ball. It makes it hurt a lot less. But when you get older and you know how to do it correctly and your skull is fully formed, I don't think it's much of an issue.
Long: People who have been playing soccer for 15 years without anything on their head, it's a bit of an adjustment.
Headers developer Bob Long.
Long: It's like professional hockey players who didn't want to wear helmets. And having also coached hockey, I would never dream of sending my kids out without the equipment on, and once I learned of the risks involved in soccer, I didn't want to be a parent that sent my kids out without something on their heads.
The regulatory bodies for youth soccer in Minnesota are expected to make a decision soon about whether they'll allow headers to be worn in all of their games.