Should We Ban Soccer Headers Completely?
Aug 24, 2023
Should We Ban Soccer Headers Completely?
In September 2021, the first soccer game to ever restrict headers kicked off at Spennymoor Town’s Brewery Field in England to raise awareness of sport-induced neurodegenerative diseases. In the first 20 seconds there was a header, followed by the ref’s whistle and a free kick. According to reports, the crowd went “mental and just laughed”.
Maybe you think the idea of banning headers in soccer is laughable as well. Or, perhaps, you think it’s something that FIFA and other governing soccer bodies should take more seriously.
The truth is, arguments can be made for both sides.
The Header Controversy in Soccer
Up until the mid to late 2010s, evidence to support soccer headers as a cause of brain damage was almost completely anecdotal. There were speculations that heading the ball may trigger long-term brain injury, based on the health declines in prolific ball headers. We had heard about Jeff Astle, Bellini, and Rod Taylor. These prolific headers suffered with dementia early in life, dying prematurely as well.
Once they were posthumously diagnosed with CTE, research began to paint a stark picture of what headers could do to the brain. A study published in 2018 revealed that players who headed the ball had higher concentrations of proteins associated with CTE in their blood one hour and up to 22 days afterwards. The levels of these proteins were significantly higher than on the days they didn’t head the ball.
Understandably, people are worried about these research findings. Aging players are concerned about what the future may hold, as are parents of young players with many years left in them. And many in this camp see a potential ban on soccer headers as a good move.
Not Every Prolific Header Will Get CTE
Of course, not everyone is buying it. Many players have lived long healthy lives after the sport, including those known for heading the ball often. So it’s safe to say that CTE is not a 100% guarantee for those who head the ball.
In fact, there’s reason to believe that players who get CTE from headers already had the “raw ingredients” to develop it anyway. Enter genetics. Researchers have found that several variations of the Apolipoprotein E (APOE) (associated with Alzheimer’s Disease) and Transmembrane Protein 106B (TMEM106B) genes increase the risk of CTE. They’ve also found other gene variations that appear to make the brain more susceptible to CTE, namely, those associated with SPATA5 and PLXNA4.
That could give rise to a new hypothesis: players who already have high-risk gene variants for CTE, are more likely to develop it if they frequently head the ball. Players who don’t have these gene variants may never develop CTE even if they’re prolific headers. The genes are the gun, while headers are the trigger.
Of course, there could be other mechanisms that trigger brain degeneration that we don’t yet understand. Nevertheless, the reasons why some players get CTE, and some don’t, may not be attributable to soccer headers alone.
When you consider both sets of research and sides of the argument, it’s clear why we can’t put this debate to rest. And because of that, maybe we shouldn’t expect to have a clear-cut answer on headers just yet.
There needs to be a middle-ground of sorts.
Here at Storelli, we see headers as a staple move in the sport. We shouldn’t ban headers completely until we have conclusive evidence that player-to-ball contact damages the brain. Our existing protocol of banning headers for U12’s is sound. And we strongly advocate for more games like the match in Spennymoor Town’s Brewery Field to raise awareness about CTE. However, we think making headers extinct isn’t necessary at present.
The Header Protocol of Tomorrow?
If anything, ball heading might need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. If a player is properly conditioned and comfortable heading the ball, then they should keep on heading the ball. But if a player doesn’t meet that criteria, coaches shouldn’t recommend or expect it from them.
At elite levels of soccer such as the Premier League and La Liga, players receive personalized training programs based on performance tests and measurements. They’re also subjected to load management, so players are pushed to their physical and mental limits, but never beyond.
Perhaps, as science and tech advances, we can do the same when it comes to headers. For instance, we could:
- Measure how their brain responds to heading the ball.
- Assess their cognition (i.e., reaction speed), blood panels (for inflammatory proteins) and so forth.
- Use these measurements and biomarkers together with gene testing results that point out genetic risks of brain degeneration.
Based on these results, coaches and managers can decide whether a player should or should not head the ball. Much of this is hypothetical. Nevertheless, players (along with guidance from a coach) can already decide whether they should head the ball or not. There’s no need for a sport-wide ban just yet.
Reminders on Header Safety
For those who do decide to head the ball, there are research-backed methods that can reduce the risk of brain injury. When done all together, players build a strong base that literally cushions the impact forces of player-to-ball contact.
How to reduce concussion risk when heading the ball
- Learn proper technique: Not all headers are equal. Learning proper technique ensures that the least amount of force is dispersed through the neck and skull, protecting the brain.
- Strengthen the neck: Research has found that neck muscles cushion impact forces that reach the brain—only if they’re strong. That’s why it’s vital for players to strengthen the neck if they want to head the ball.
- Wear protective headgear: The advice to wear soccer concussion headgear is a debate in itself, but we recommend wearing it nonetheless. For example, our ExoShield headguard demonstrated an ability to reduce head impact forces by 84%, which translates to some protection instead of none.
There is no way to promise soccer players an injury-free game if they choose to head the ball. The best we can do is to continue raising awareness about the potential risks, and give athletes tips to protect themselves. More importantly, they should have the autonomy to choose not to head the ball if they please—a personal ban of sorts.
But of course, no one will lose their head if some localized clubs decide to host “header-free” games—unless maybe you happen to be sitting in the bleachers.
Looking to protect your head from impact forces in soccer? Take a look at our “concussion prevention” guide for insights and tips.