Head Protection in Soccer: What We Know and Don't Know

Feb 11, 2019


SUMMARY:

  • Historically, soccer head protection helped against cuts and bruises, but was considered ineffective against brain injuries due to outdated technologies and designs.
  • As global attention over head injuries mounts, the soccer industry has made important advances in protective technologies and comfort.
  • A new 2018 study by the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab argues that the right headgear can dramatically reduce head injuries, including concussions, and stack-ranked all available products to identify the best on the market.
  • In 2016, NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) commissioned the largest multi-year field study to date to determine if headgear reduces concussions. The results will be released in early 2019 by the research team at University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
  • Thus, the soccer world will have a clear data-driven answer soon. Many are predicting that the results will confirm Virginia Tech's conclusions that the right type of soccer headgear can materially reduce the risk of concussions. It surely won't be shown to be a total solution- because that doesn't exist- but it prove to be a big step forward.

 

FULL ARTICLE:

Head injuries are one of the most debated topics in soccer. In recent years, a number of studies have provided conclusive evidence that head injuries happen frequently and the effects can be quite significant (for a summary of key data points from existing literature, read this post).

FIFA and other institutions are adopting more aggressive concussion protocols, and the US Soccer Federation has tweaked the rules of the game to reduce risks (e.g., banning headers for younger age groups). Most recognize that these initiatives only partially address risks, and all soccer institutions, along with parents and players, face the fact that head injuries in soccer is a serious problem that is here to stay.

What can a player or parent do to reduce the risk of injury?

There is no substitute for proper training and technique. Coaching is a must, but on its own can only go so far. Even world-class players are not immune from risks of concussions and head injuries. 

What about head protection? Head gear is a rarity in soccer today, and many coaches, parents and players are wondering if extra protective gear can reduce risks. Recently, several sports have turned to head protection as a risk reducing measure against head injuries. Take snow sports for example: helmets were not used 20 years ago. Nowadays, it would be reckless to ski without one. American football and hockey are similar examples of sports that went from no (or almost no) head protection to everyone wearing it.

We summarized where the soccer industry stands on head protection and what data it has about the effectiveness in 6 key points below:

  1. Historically, soccer head protection has been super-dorky and ineffective. It's no wonder many hold the view that "headgear will not help". Therefore, there has been minimal demand, leading to limited research and innovation, which translates to outdated technologies and designs. 
  2. Protective technologies have evolved significantly, and new solutions are available.This new wave of innovation is fueled by growing public attention and concerns about head injuries in soccer. As more dollars and talent focus on solving the issue, new solutions are being released. 
  3. New credible studies are being conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of these solutions. More research from expert institutions are focusing on what can prevent head injuries in soccer. For example, in 2018 the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, a major research institution focused on head protection in sports, introduced a new methodology for assessing the effectiveness of headgear in reducing concussions in soccer, and stack-ranked every product on the market.
  4. Virginia Tech concluded in Spring 2018 that the right headgear can indeed "dramatically reduce risks of concussions in soccer". The recent lab study made a case for the positive value of wearing head protection in soccer (read the full press release here). There are two important caveats: a) the results ranged widely, reflecting big differences in the quality of protective materials and constructions of various products; and b) the study was performed via simulated impacts in a lab, which means no humans were involved. Skeptics will note it was a lab study to make light of the results, but the experience of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab team is extensive and many believe the results to be a strong indicator of value of the products tested. 
  5. The mother of all studies is about to be released, hopefully settling uncertainty once and for all.  Does headgear prevent concussions in soccer? In 2016, NOCSAE (the National Operating Committee for Standards in Athletic Equipment) sponsored the largest multi-year study in collaboration with Dr. Tim McGuine's research team at the University of Wisconsin Madison (read the details of the clinical study here) to answer the question. The study is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind so it has the promise of becoming the keystone study on the topic, with the following characteristics:
    • ~3,000 US high school soccer players (primarily females, as it turned out to be harder to recruit male players), across schools that volunteered to participate in the study. This makes it the largest study of this kind ever conducted
    • To avoid bias, half of the players are randomly selected to wear headgear, half do not wear headgear so injury rates across the two groups can be compared
    • Multiple brands of headgear are included in the study, so results will compare different styles of headgear (confirming or disproving Virginia Tech's findings that different types of headgear can have dramatically different results)
    • 2 full years of data collection (2016 - 2018)
    • Athletic trainers assessing injuries at every game to confirm incidence of concussions
    • All types of injuries are tracked so the study will not only show the effect on brain injuries, but also address the claim that wearing headgear causes players to be more aggressive and suffer further injuries. 
    • The results of the study are being peer-reviewed and will be published in a major academic journal, and are sure to attract the attention of FIFA, the US Soccer Federation and youth soccer organizations across the globe.
  1. If the results of the NOCSAE study show that the right type of headgear does materially reduce concussion risk (like Virginia Tech argues), how will the soccer world respond? Many think that if the results confirm the value of headgear in reducing brain injuries, mass adoption is inevitable and educational institutions will take the lead in requiring headgear during competitive match play. Too early to tell, but we will know soon enough. Stay tuned.

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