Forbes: on the value of headgear in soccer
Feb 11, 2020
In the last decade we have learned a lot about the serious impact that a concussion can have on a person’s long-term health, especially for a child or young adult whose brains are still maturing. This problem has been discussed most often in the context of youth or high school football, and most of these programs have taken steps to limit contact in practices, as well as improved their vigilance about identifying and diagnosing head trauma.
However, other high school sports expose their participants to potential head trauma as well, but have not been as proactive in addressing the problem. For instance, girls’ high school soccer has a concussion incidence of 8.4 per 10,000 games and practices, which is twice as high as boys’ soccer and, according to a study by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, which is even higher than for high school football players.
Not only is the incidence of head injuries in girls’ soccer increasing, but we are also seeing more head injuries in absolute terms as well, because more girls are playing soccer in high school than ever before—about 400,000 in 2019, which is ten percent above a decade ago and twenty times what it was in 1980.
It is also the case that the athleticism of the typical girl playing high school soccer has increased as well; in most places the girls who make their varsity team have been playing the sport nearly year round since they were little girls, and participate in strength and conditioning drills in the off-season. As training and conditioning improve, speed and strength increase as well, rendering on-field collisions more dangerous.
While it may be impossible to reduce the speed of the game, we can do more to protect them from harm—by introducing head production for youth soccer players.
Three years ago a research team at the University of Wisconsin conducted an analysis of 3,000 female high school soccer players to determine whether headgear can reduce the incidence of concussion. It found that while the average headgear did little or nothing to reduce concussion incidence, top-quality headgear was associated with a sharply lower concussion rate, as evidenced in the study’s product-level data.
It also discerned that these protective devices did not appear to induce a moral hazard effect, whereby the helmets inculcate players with a feeling of invincibility and spur them to play more physically and take more risks on the field.
A few months before the publication of this study, the Helmet Lab at Virginia Tech University—considered the preeminent lab for such analysis—began including reviews of soccer helmets in its own ratings. It found that the top-of-the-line headgear—which are actually headbands—provide significant protection and that the top products can reduce the incidence of concussion by as much as 80 percent.
In the last few years most states have taken steps to inform high school football players and their parents of the risks inherent in playing the game while mandating that schools take steps to improve player safety, such as by limiting contact in practice and mandating minimum safety standards for helmets.
New York State is one of numerous jurisdictions that has been pondering how to address the growing concussion incidence in high school girls’ soccer. Given its size, what it does can set a precedent for other communities in the Northeast and the rest of the country to follow. It would behoove it to consider mandating high quality headgear for high school soccer players.
I took up soccer in my early twenties and by the time I was 30 I was playing in a competitive league with a bevy of college soccer players. However, my tenure in the league was cut short by a concussion; the injury dampened my enthusiasm for the game and I moved on to other pursuits.
I got off lucky: some high school kids who suffer a concussion find themselves in considerable pain or unable to concentrate, phenomena that can last for months. It behooves us to take steps to make sports safer for high school athletes, and especially when it can be done at a minimal cost.