There are legions of soccer-loving families across America and it’s easy to see why. Young children can quickly learn the game, plus it’s fast-paced and exciting to watch.
Recently, the sport has come under scrutiny for its hallmark move – the header – and its potential link to concussions in kids. In November, the U.S. Soccer Federation recommended that soccer players aged 10 and younger should be banned from heading the ball. A few months later, Illinois Youth Soccer did the same.
Soccer parents, naturally, worry about injuries. As we learn more about concussion and youth sports, and follow new guidelines, our response should be positive and in perspective: These rules are not made to alarm or create panic, but to help players avoid the risk of injury so they can continue to enjoy the game.
A concussion can be caused by a jolt or bump to the head, causing the brain to move rapidly back and forth. The diagnosis is based on symptoms which may include dizziness, clumsiness, confusion, nausea, moodiness or headache.
If a player experiences symptoms during practice or a game, he or she should be removed from the game and evaluated by a physician. Children should not return to playing until a physician says it’s OK. A player risks further injury by returning to play while the brain is still recovering.
Is age 10 significant?
Using age 10 as a cut-off for heading makes sense considering the goals of youth soccer are to foster the physical, mental and emotional development of youths in a safe, fun environment.
Young kids not trying to head the ball will reduce the risk of injury while still developing soccer skills and improving their fitness. Concussions typically occur when players collide in attempt to head a ball, not from the ball itself.
Limiting possible exposure to a head injury in this age group is wise. Heading can then be introduced at a later age with proper technique and coaching.
How can players avoid the risk of injury?
Sports-related injuries vary from sprained ankles to ACL tears or concussions. What many people don’t realize is that minor injuries can worsen over time, developing into more significant issues.
“Playing through the pain” can cause more significant problems, so it is crucial that young athletes notify a coach, trainer or parent about any potential problems.
Tips to reduce the risk of injury:
• Be aware of your body. Know what feels right and what does not. On the field, know where the ball is and who is around you.
• Hydrate. If you are thirsty, you might already be dehydrated.
• A good stretch lasts at least 10 seconds. Don’t stretch beyond where you feel comfortable.
• Fields, courts and all other playing surfaces should be examined and in good condition.
• Wear the appropriate gear. Now is not the time to go rogue, so bite down on that mouth guard and tighten your cleats.
• Diversify your activities with cross-training and rest days. Even the best athletes try different sports to avoid overuse of the same muscles, ligaments and joints.
• Don’t set unreasonable goals for your weight or body fat percentage. Work with your coaches and doctor to determine what is best for you.
Dr. Adam Bennett is a sports medicine physician at NorthShore Orthopaedic Institute. He played soccer in college, was a youth soccer coach and is a team physician for U.S. Soccer and the Chicago Bears. Visit www.northshore.org/ortho for more information.