Top of mind: Progress in youth soccer

By Jon Townsend 

Think of the world of youth soccer in terms of science versus engineering. Science explores, identifies, and exposes anomalies while engineering strives to solve those anomalies efficiently and expeditiously. Note the difference: one exposes a problem; the other attempts to solve it.

Youth soccer in the United States finds itself at an interesting crossroads – on teetering the line between player safety and winning soccer. On the one hand, the United States Soccer Federation has embarked on an important path leading to a more careful approach with regards to head injuries. On the other hand, rules are only as good as those who follow them. As well-intentioned as the mandate that we covered in the pages last November is, the time for revisiting this topic is at hand.

While the United States Soccer Federation, the country’s governing body, issued the original guidelines that ‘recommended’ a ban on heading at the U-10 and younger level and limit heading for the U-11 to U-13 ages, the biggest issues and questions pertained to the ramifications of such an audacious rule change.

Naturally, many wondered how the youth game would be affected by the mandate through the wrong lens. In parent and coaching circles, discussions always tend to oscillate from what’s best for player safety versus what’s best to produce winning soccer. For far too long, youth soccer ‘success’ is hinged on winning over development – at the expense of player safety.

At its core, many believe this to be a technique-based issue, and while teaching proper heading technique is paramount, there are yet more factors that permeate the game played beyond the chalked lines on game-day.

To date, no documentation has surfaced on how USSF intends to enforce, augment and even regulate the heading mandate. In other words, USSF has made a miscalculation by leaving the rule open to interpretation. What happens when people begin to see this “rule” more as a “recommendation” over time? So it seems USSF and the state associations have to act retroactively and issue “announcements”, presumably after something terrible happened or someone had the gumption to ask the pertinent questions.

Illinois Youth Soccer recently issued a statement that addressed this conundrum. Again, thinking pro-actively instead of reactively is a good; however, the issues requires more attention to the factors that inevitably lead to more headers. For example, USSF has issued guidelines stipulating more small-sided-games at the youth level with the supposed intention to encourage more possession soccer over kick-run-repeat soccer, yet nobody seems to know if this is enforced by the Federation.

The reality is if player safety is truly a priority, why not explore how head injuries statistically occur in soccer? For example, why not issue a rule that stipulates goalkeepers at the U-10 and younger ages do not punt the ball, but instead attempt to play out of the back. Perhaps instituting a ‘line of confrontation’ in each half would allow the goalkeeper to freely play the ball to a teammate before the opposition can engage and attempt to win the ball back would go a long way.

Due to the myriad of unknowns that arise from studies linking concussions in soccer, it’s clear the youth-levels of the sport have a long way to go if it’s to reach the core of the issues. Although limited or banning headers is a good step, such a regulation doesn’t do enough to combat the chaotic nature of American youth soccer. Elbows to the head, collisions resulting from poor technical ability and parents and coaches shouting “Boot it!” from the sidelines in a foam-at-the-mouth frenzy during the run of play need to be addressed, too.

Ultimately, coaches play a pivotal role in the enforcement and the integration of progressive new methods that educate both players and parents alike. Rene Muelensteen, former technical and first-team coach at Manchester United, addressed the issue of influential behavior while he was in charge of the club’s youth development initiative and academy. In his own words, Muelensteen once said, “Footballers cannot learn how to make their own decisions if they are used to receiving instruction from the touchline.”

Local impact

Closer to home, Hugh Ward, Director of Coaching for the Rockford Raptors soccer club, was more than willing to proffer his initial views on the mandate and its associated guidelines from a coaching perspective.

“I think with more awareness of the signs of a concussion that this was inevitable,” he told The Time. “We need to always ensure the safety of our younger athletes.”

Further areas of exploration have arisen from the mandate that extend deep into the developmental aspects and practices of soccer clubs like the Raptors. Beyond the surface, for some coaches and clubs, the guidelines could be seen as a mechanism to change the way the game is taught and ultimately played on game-day.

In this aspect, the game benefits as players can learn to play a more controlled, keep-it-on-the-deck version of soccer. However, according to Ward, this was already taking place at his club well in advance of the November announcement.

“We have been pushing more possession based training sessions over that past few years anyway, so this has not changed for our club.”

Perhaps the area with the most concern lies in the enforcement of such a policy that is, pardon the pun, a game-changer. Trust and responsibility now lies on the coaches and players within these clubs to uphold the standard instead of merely ticking the boxes to what could have been dangerously seen as a “suggestion” to eliminate headers at the youth level.

“We always follow the rules of our State Association, Illinois Youth Soccer Association that is governed by US Youth Soccer,” Ward said. “It is important that the guidelines are respected.”

Nearly five months on, it’s a fair ask to determine whether or not there has been a decline in concussions and head injuries within club competitions. According to Ward, the frequency of head injuries hasn’t necessarily decreased, but that is just as much a matter of informing all parties as it is about the enacting proper safety protocols.

“I think over that past few years we have seen more instances of concussion. I do think, however, that this is mainly due to more education on the issue with both coaches and parents.”

The landscape of American youth sports, especially soccer, is tricky to navigate as clubs must continue to uphold the safety protocols and place a higher precedence on safety over winning at all costs. Many of the issues of the past were cloaked in a culture of ignorance and an over-exuberant social movement demanding youth players to “play hurt” and “toughen up”. At Rockford Raptors, empowering coaches and front-loading them with education and information is mandatory.

“As coaches we are required to pass the HEADS UP Concussion Test annually so that we are aware of the symptoms players can show when a head injury occurs,” Ward said. “The Raptors organization is more focused on the development of the player rather than a ‘win at all cost’ [mentality].”

Time will tell whether the USSF’s heading protocols impact the youth game for the better. To its credit, the Federation has acknowledged the issue but the USSF can’t continue to do so in such a piecemeal fashion. Want to eliminate headers? Encourage more coaching education centered on possession soccer and evolve from a culture of kick-and-run chaos ball.

Both clubs and the Federation have a responsibility to be more a presence not only in the boardrooms, but on the sidelines to ensure the safety of young players comes first. Whether that comes in the form of regular club audits by the USSF on instruction and safety measures or making clubs reported all concussion-related injuries in an annual report to the Federation through a third-party service, on thing is clear – player safety has to be top of mind, not over everyone’s head.

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