The Closest You Can Get to Concussion "Prevention"
Aug 2, 2022
In an alternate universe, maybe you could prevent soccer concussions - but no one lives in such a realm. The reality is that all soccer players face some risk of brain injuries, even if it’s minimal. With that said, there are many preventative measures that players can rely on to bring their risk down as much as possible. This post will examine all of the exercises, gear, and methods players and coaches can use to reduce the risk of brain injuries.
Soccer Concussion Headguard
Soccer players wearing “helmets” probably creates a goofy mental image for some. But researchers and players alike have found that wearing a soccer concussion headband can significantly reduce the risk of concussions.
For example, researchers at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab found that numerous soccer concussion headbands blunted the impact forces of headers. Our very own ASTM-certified, ExoShield headguard came out on top, with an ability to reduce concussion risks by 84%. It offers this protection partly from its military-grade foam, which the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps use in their helmets. This foam protects soldiers from blasts and shrapnel, so it’s heavy-duty stuff.
High-profile players have said that a soccer concussion headguard like ours protects them from hard head impacts and helps them feel more confident on the pitch. And it doesn’t look clunky either.
Visual Awareness Exercises
You can’t avoid what you can’t see. And that’s why every soccer player should incorporate vision training into their conditioning routines. Vision training helps players build visual awareness. Better visual awareness helps players put themselves in the right place at the right time, but also, it helps them spot other players on the field better.
Players who can see their opponents more clearly will have an easier time avoiding head-to-head collisions, which is the most common cause of soccer concussions. Vision training usually involves exercises that help improve the coordination of your eyes so that they take in more accurate visual stimuli.
That ultimately feeds your brain with more accurate information, which can help you spot danger faster.
Proper Header Technique
Headers pose one of the biggest dilemmas in soccer, especially for youth. It’s an essential skill that all serious players need to learn, but it carries an elevated risk of brain injury for young players. Aside from reducing the frequency of headers (more on this below), young players need to practice proper header techniques.
Solid technique reduces the strain that heading the ball puts on the neck. A safe (and practical) header usually looks like this:
- Getting in the line of flight for the ball
- Reading the trajectory of the ball
- Positioning the head for the ball
- Heading the ball (actively) instead of letting the ball hit the player
Coaches need to coach players on the correct form. Of course, players themselves need many repetitions to make this form second nature.
Neck Strengthening Exercises
Your neck is a robust shock absorber, similar to the shocks on the car. When your head sustains an impact, the neck cushions the force - but only if it’s strong enough. Soccer players with thinner and weaker necks are more likely to suffer concussions because their muscles can’t withstand as much force.
Women and younger players tend to have smaller neck muscles, which is why they have a higher risk of concussions. However, neck strengthening exercises build neck strength and mass, so an impact with the ball or even another player is less traumatic. Incorporating exercises such as “cobras” and “dumbbell shrugs” can build neck bulk over time.
Header Frequency Reduction
Head-to-ball impacts don’t lead to as many concussions as head-to-head collisions do. However, repeated head-to-ball impacts (from headers) cause what’s known as subconcussive head injuries. These are seemingly minor hits that cause no noticeable effects.
But over time, they can trigger substantial brain changes that may lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This degenerative brain disease leads to progressive disability and premature death.
Researchers found that soccer players who frequently headed the ball had brain changes such as elevated levels of blood proteins that could lead to dementia. Players who didn’t head the ball as often (or at all) showed no such changes.
So the takeaway is clear: heading the ball less frequently can keep the brain safe from CTE! Fortunately, a rule bans the heading in youth players under 12. We strongly advise coaches and players to follow it. For older athletes, heading the ball less often (but with better form) is ideal.
Reduce Air Pressure of the Ball
Heading a soccer ball traveling at speeds of 70 mph (112 km/h) is one thing, but the weight and pressure of the ball add a lot more force. A size five ball inflated at 1.10 bar (16 psi) can quickly exceed FIFA’s 474.8g weight limit, especially when it absorbs water.
Constant hits to the head with a ball at this weight and pressure can lead to brain changes lasting 3-4 months. But lowering the pressure to 0.55 bar (8 psi) decreases impact forces by 20%. Reduced impact forces to the head mean less head acceleration, limiting the amount of shock your neck (and skull) has to absorb.
That could mean a lower risk of both subconcussive and full-on concussive damage. Ball pressure regulations vary from league to league, but coaches and organizers should consider reducing the pressure where appropriate.
Enforce Safe Play/Rules
Lastly, coaches and league organizers must remember their responsibility to promote a safe playing environment. That means enforcing rules and avoiding tactics to prevent overly aggressive play styles. Coaches should never encourage players to tackle or collide with players illegally, and referees need to penalize players who do to set an example.
Doing so can prevent some brain injuries that stem from rough play. Also, coaches should comply with rules such as the header ban for youth players under 12 and never let a player who has sustained a head hit keep playing.
A Soccer Concussion Prevention Protocol for Tomorrow’s Superstars
Entirely preventing a soccer concussion is highly unlikely. But bringing that risk close to nil is possible. As our understanding of brain injuries expands, we’re starting to see that many factors contribute to concussions and head impacts.
Players and coaches can address many of these factors by combining exercise, soccer protective gear, and safety strategies. If every team practiced the combined preventive measures listed above, we’re confident that we’d see fewer brain injuries over time.
And that’s where we, Storelli, come in.
Our goal is to continue dishing out research, strategies, and tools that can help make the beautiful game safer.
Looking for more tips on safety and performance in soccer? Be sure to check out our blog for more insights.