Scottish youth body calls for more representative testing on effects of heading on memory
The Scottish Youth Football Association (SYFA) has called for more research into the effects of heading the ball following a study which revealed repeated heading can affect memory.
Research published last month by the University of Stirling suggested that heading the ball repeatedly could lead to “temporary but significant” changes in brain function, but the SYFA has raised questions over the research methodology.
In the study, designed to simulate routine soccer practice, a group of 14 men and five women, aged 19-25, headed machine-projected footballs 20 times in a 10 minute period.
Players then underwent a series of cognitive tests, with results showing a 41% – 67% reduction in memory performance immediately after the heading session, although performance returned to normal levels 24 hours later.
The SYFA were initially reported to be revising their heading guidelines “as soon as possible” but, having met with the researchers, chief executive David Little has requested more representative research be carried out on the effects of heading in a game or training situation.
“This study involved firing balls from a ball launcher at players and they had to head them away. That is just not representative of a football match,” Little told Club Website.
“We felt that, while the results were accurate, the method of testing was flawed. It was not actually representative of a game of football. We’ve asked them to modify their testing programme and look at what happens in situations that are more similar to a game or training.”
In November 2015, US Soccer banned heading for under-10s and limited heading activity in practice for children aged 11 to 13. A Club Website poll at the time found that one third of members had concerns over the effect of heading on children.
SYFA rules prevent goalkeepers from kicking the ball out from hand in all age groups up to under-11s, thus reducing the number of headers in matches for the youngest children, whilst Little says they “would not recommend” repetitive heading drills for children at any age.
An increase in the amount of Futsal played is also being considered by the SYFA, which would further reduce the chances of heading whilst putting more of a focus on improving skill and technique on the ball.
Little said that the SYFA will continue to monitor the situation closely and will consider carefully any future research that might have implications for the health and safety of its players, which is its number one priority.
He urged members to familiarise themselves with Sport Scotland’s official concussion guidelines so that players, coaches and parents alike know what symptoms to look out for and how to respond to a suspected concussion.
The clear message for all levels of football is: ‘If in doubt, sit them out.’
There has been growing concern around the effects of concussion in sport in recent years, with widespread calls for more research to be done, most notably from the family of former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, whose died in 2002, aged 59, following brain trauma caused by repeatedly heading the football.
A 2014 post-mortem of Astle’s preserved brain found him to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a condition normally linked to former boxers and American football players – thus raising concerns about the long-term impacts of repeated heading.
In May the Football Association committed to leading a study into the possible links between football and brain diseases, whilst last November they published their own new concussion guidelines for all levels of the game, which carry very much the same message as those north of the border.
An FA spokesperson said: “The FA’s medical research on head injuries in football has been ongoing for some time and we are focused on better understanding and implementing preventative measures for the safety of players, across all levels of the game.
“We welcome any medical research in this area and this [University of Stirling] study gives an interesting insight into the short-term effects of heading the ball, which is important because this occurs uniquely in our sport.
“The FA is committed to researching and examining all areas of head injuries in football, in particular around the long-term effects on players. We are currently assessing research projects in this area, in collaboration with The Drake Foundation and the PFA, and this will help us to fully understand the health benefits and any risks associated with playing football.”