November 17, 2015
Brain expert explains the wisdom of USSF's heading policy for youngsters

By Mike Woitalla


Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the USA's leading experts
on concussions in sports, responded to some of the criticisms of the
U.S. Soccer Federation’s recommendations on heading in youth
soccer in an href="http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2015/11/13/us-soccer-youth-headers-concussions-player-safety-robert-cantu">interview
with SI.com’s Grant Wahl.

Last week, U.S. Soccer announced that, in addition to launching a concussion awareness campaign and creating uniform concussion management and return-to-play protocols for youth players, it is recommending the elimination of heading for children 10 and under and limiting the amount of heading in practice for ages of 11 to 13.

Cantu has advocated holding off on heading until age 14, but says U.S. Soccer’s guidelines eliminate, “over a period of time hundreds of thousands of sub-concussive and concussive blows in youngsters whose brains are most vulnerable. …

“So it’s much better than what it was when they were trying to head soccer balls at ages 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. Would it be better that they not head them at 11, 12, or 13? Yes. But the fact it’s being limited in practice through those ages is better than no limitation.”

To the notion that teaching proper technique, not banning heading for young children, is a better approach, Cantu says proper technique doesn’t eliminate concussions from head-head, head-elbow or head-shoulder collisions that can occur while heading.

On limiting how much children practice heading, Cantus said:

“You can be taught in a practice situation and you can be taught with a lighter ball than a regulation soccer ball, so that the sub-concussive aspect of things can be greatly minimized. So you can still be taught some of these skills in a controlled environment where heads can’t collide. … And I think that simply backing it up to ages 11 to 13 before you start to do this is going to save a lot of concussions that otherwise would have happened -- and a lot of head trauma that otherwise would have happened.”

Must-reading: "Q&A: Dr. Robert Cantu on new U.S. Soccer youth heading, safety initiative" By Grant Wahl

* * *

A great nickname, a good comeback, and a mid-game hug

After I printed out my Sunday morning referee assignment, I told my wife, “This looks like a mismatch. The Devils vs. the Sheep.”

And on this day I wasn't dreading the adults who scream at the children during games. I looked forward to what might be shouted from the sidelines -- and wasn't disappointed.

Before the kickoff came a “Get ready to hustle, Sheep!” One dad was fond of yelling, “Get your heads up, Sheep!” When the Devils had a run of possession, one parent yelled, “Get the ball, Sheep!” -- in case the 11-year-olds hadn’t yet comprehended that aspect of the game.

But best were the screams of, “Spread out, Sheep!”

* * *

It was, in fact, an entertaining weekend of youth soccer for me. On Saturday morning, in a U-10 game, a defender got the ball close to the corner flag, passed the ball to his goalkeeper, who relayed it to a midfielder. During the sequence, the coach screamed, “Don’t pass it in the middle!”

As the midfielder dribbled into the other team's half, the boy yelled back, “It worked, didn’t it!”

* * *

And later that day, it was 6-year-old girls in the very good format of splitting rosters into two 4v4 games with small goals and no goalkeepers. Adults on the sideline made sure the ball stayed in play, by tapping it back in when it crossed the lines, so the kids got lots of action. No wasted time with throw-ins or kick-ins.

This was the last day of the fall season the kids came into with no soccer experience. Simply kicking a ball presented a major challenge at the beginning. Now they were starting to look like soccer players and obviously enjoying themselves, celebrating the goals that came more frequently now that they could dribble and kick the ball straight.

But the reminders of just how young they were came up a few delightful times, such as when one team had a 3v2 counterattack because one player kept two opponents occupied by discussing what sounded like birthday party plans. And then there was the goal that came thanks mainly to the two defenders who, for some reason, were in the middle of a hug.