Heading in the right direction

A new policy from the game’s governing body in the U.S. is set to fundamentally shift youth soccer

By Jon Townsend
and Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

Nothing sends a message quite like trauma, but a new a mandate from the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) has sent waves through the sport of soccer.

America’s governing body issued new guidelines Monday centered around player safety, effectively removing heading from the game for children 10-and-under while limiting the amount of heading in practice for children ages of 11 to 13.

Monday’s announcement follows on from the resolution of the Mehr youth soccer concussion lawsuit. The defendants in that litigation battle were none other than USSF; United States Youth Soccer Association; American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO); U.S. Club Soccer; and the California Youth Soccer Association.

The outcome of that case was clear: the time has come to take headers out of youth soccer. And, perhaps shockingly for those more used to an organizing body that sits on its hands more often than not, USSF came out with a strong shot:

“The United States Soccer Federation and the other youth member defendants, with input from counsel for the plaintiffs, have developed a sweeping youth soccer initiative designed to:

“(a) improve concussion awareness and education among youth coaches, referees, parents and players;

“(b) implement more uniform concussion management and return-to-play protocols for youth players suspected of having suffered a concussion;

“(c) modify the substitution rules to insure such rules do not serve as an impediment to the evaluation of players who may have suffered a concussion during games

“(d) eliminate heading for children 10 and under and limit heading in practice for children between the ages of 11 and 13.”

“We are proud to be leaders in the areas of concussion education and management,” U.S. Soccer CEO/Secretary General Dan Flynn said in a statement. “The development of a player safety initiative was under way before the current lawsuit was filed.”

On the safety side, much has yet to be determined concerning the links between heading the ball and concussions, though experts agree that repeatedly striking your head against a heavy object is detrimental to one’s health.

The societal concerns steeped in skepticism related to the connections between heading and concussions transcend the American perception of not only soccer but also speak to the larger ethos of the American sporting landscape, one which champions physicality over technique.

Sadly, limiting the discussion to traumatic brain injury only goes to hide a larger concern: that the repeated act of heading a ball can cause just as many problems in the long term as any single concussion.

Anyone familiar with the ongoing dialogues surrounding the American brand of football has heard of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. To put such a debilitating disease in as simple terms as possible, all those little hits – in this case, all those headers – can add up to something horrible for the athlete down the line.

A study at Purdue University has shown that such minor collisions in young athletes can modify behavior over the course of just a single sports season.

So yes, while concussion is a valid concern and one that USSF (and FIFA) need to address, chalking up the decision to remove headers from the youth levels should be treated as a solution to more than just a singular problem.

At the same, it makes sense to not only implement policies to restructure how the game is coached and played at the youngest ages to not only protect players but also to improve the standard of soccer from the ground-up. US Soccer’s policy seems to, on its face, address both.

Heading is, at its most basic, a rather simple skill: see the ball, put your head on the ball. The problem from the coaching and development standpoint rests in the fact that, because it is an easy skill to teach, it becomes a crutch for under-qualified coaches across the nation.

USSF’s directive will now put the impetus on learning to use one’s chest to play the ball, or learning to bring an uncontested ball at midfield down to the feet. Instead of simply teaching players to effectively bomb a pass back up the pitch with their heads we will now have to begin teaching them skills that the rest of the world works from the youngest stages of development. For the long term goals of USSF, namely winning a World Cup, Monday’s decision could bear fruit well beyond keeping young players safe.

By USSF mandating a protocol with player safety in mind, real progress only comes through actual implementation of the mandate. The first hurdle is shifting the youth soccer paradigm from a “win at all costs” approach to “learn how to actually play” approach. The fallout of this mandate has the potential to spark fundamental changes to the coaching and pedagogical methodologies that have historically been employed in the U.S.

Improving the level and depth of the holistic talent pool needs to start at the grassroots level and with leadership from the top-down. USSF along with the youth soccer organizations and associations can start working toward literally changing the way the game is taught and played for the youngest players.

Coaching education within the United States Soccer Federation and The National Soccer Coaches Association of America will have to restructure the best practices for players aged 13 and under. If done correctly, the safety of the players will further be made a priority in relation to head injuries while at the same time crafting more complete players for generations to come.

With the announcement of the policy comes the issues of governance relating to the mandate. How US Soccer and the supporting organizations will assess clubs, coaches and teams that fail to adhere to the initiative remains to be seen. As it stands, until US Soccer assures the soccer-playing public that it will, in fact, hold clubs, coaches and teams accountable, it’s unlikely that rapid changes will be seen.

The reality is this initiative seems to have resulted from lawsuits and injuries sustained to countless young players around the nation. Regardless of its genesis, it remains imperative that coaches, parents, and players continue to push US Soccer and hold the Federation accountable as this initial announcement is but one step of many that must take place to see a positive shift.

The battles US Soccer will face are deeply rooted, both systemic and societal. Questions will remain concerning the state of youth soccer in the United States going forward, many of which there are no larger answers for. Fundamentally, a shift in attitude, coaching methodology, societal attitudes towards the sport, and systems of play must move dramatically and in unison for any meaningful impact to take place.

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