Soccer is normally considered a safe sport, relatively speaking. Compared to football players, for example, soccer players are thought to be less vulnerable to head injury. When concussions occur in soccer, they are usually blamed on player collisions. But a new study suggests that heading the soccer ball could itself result in concussion symptoms (Stewart et al, Frontiers in Neurology, online, April 24, 2018).
Soccer Players Heading the Ball:
The scientists recruited over 300 amateur soccer players between 18 and 55 years of age. The volunteers filled out detailed questionnaires about their participation in soccer during the preceding two weeks. They also took a variety of tests to measure memory, verbal learning, attention and processing speed.
Players who reported heading the ball most frequently performed worse on many of these cognitive tests. Psychomotor speed was also affected.
Although the results were subtle, the investigators are concerned that many months or years of repeated ball heading might lead to irreversible changes in brain function.
Previous Studies on Heading a Soccer Ball:
This is not the first study to suggest that heading the ball could be bad for soccer players. One study published in 2017 found that players who did this more often appeared more vulnerable to concussions.
An earlier study, published in 2013, also raised red flags for soccer players:
Heading the Ball:
Heading a soccer ball repeatedly may injure the brain (Radiology, Sep. 2013). Researchers detected microscopic changes in brain structure among players who headed the ball more than 1,000 times in a year. Memory scores were also lower in those who headed the ball more than 1,800 times annually.
During practice, players may head a ball 30 times or more in quick succession. During a game, a soccer ball is often moving at 50 miles per hour. Some players may head the ball a dozen times or more. The investigators call for research to develop strategies to protect the brain during soccer practice and games.
Keep in mind that these were not pro soccer players. They were high-level amateurs who loved the game. They had been playing for an average of 22 years.
What concerns is that a lot of young children are now soccer enthusiasts. Don’t get us wrong, we think soccer is a wonderful sport and we love it that kids are playing. But what is the long-term impact of repeated ball heading on a young brain? Until we know more about this, perhaps kids should be encouraged to do less heading in practice.