CHESTERFIELD — With the sports world taking a more serious look at head injuries, the body part is still a crucial part of one game: soccer.
Some youth players, though, will have to wait to learn heading skills. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that coaches with Soccer Shots, a franchise that teaches soccer fundamentals to more than 45,000 children in 30 states, are prohibited from teaching young kids how to hit a ball with their head. The ban applies to children ages 2 to 8.
Proponents cite growing evidence that brain damage can occur with a series of soft impacts to the head, rather than a hard blow. But others say heading is a vital part of the game that needs to be taught.
Founders of Soccer Shots banned teaching heading after learning that concussions diagnosed in children had increased by 58 percent between 2001 and 2010 and that heading can cause those concussions. They want other soccer clinics and leagues for children under age 8 to follow suit.
"A couple of statistics really jumped out, especially how girls soccer had the second highest rate of concussion, second only to football," said Justin Bredeman, vice president of franchisee recruitment at Soccer Shots. "Plus, there's a lot more to the sport than heading, so we made the intentional decision to pull it out of our curriculum. It seemed like common sense to do. We decided to focus on other techniques."
Others involved in the sport, and even some medical experts, are skeptical that the ban will reduce concussions. They say a direct impact isn't necessary for a concussion — a hard jerk of the neck during a collision or a fall can also cause it.
Tony Glavin, a retired professional soccer player and owner of Tony Glavin Soccer Club in St. Louis, said he's never had a concussion despite 50 years of heading soccer balls, even during his childhood.
"As a youth coach for 20 plus years, there have been off and on talks about heading," said Glavin. "I haven't seen anything conclusive that it actually causes concussions or problems."
Jerry Beckerle, executive director of the Midwest Soccer Academy and director of the St. Louis Catholic Youth soccer league, said the ball typically isn't moving fast enough in youth games to hurt a child who uses his head. He also noted that practice focuses more on the feet, not using the head.
"It's part of the game, but the majority is still kicking and passing," Beckerle said.
Beckerle doesn't believe banning heading is a big deal for most kids under age 9. But after that, players might need the skill, he said.
"Some kids eat, drink and breathe soccer, and as you graduate up to 11- or 12-year-old teams, you definitely need it," says Beckerle. "Though you do have some kids who will avoid it all together. They just do."
Mark Halstead, an orthopedic surgeon at Washington University Orthopedics in Chesterfield and a concussions expert, supports the heading ban. He said most children don't have the ability to safely head a ball until about age 9 or 10 because they lack neck strength and coordination.