Concussion Substitutions: Will They Make a Difference for Players’ Safety?

Mar 26, 2020

As we have learned more about the effects of concussions on the brain, more pressure has been put on high-speed and high-impact sports like soccer to make meaningful changes. Soccer’s newest safety measure is concussion substitutions. 

The details are still being clarified, but essentially concussion substitutions would allow teams to replace players mid-game either temporarily or permanently if they exhibit signs of a head injury. These concussion substitutions would not count towards a team’s three changes per game. 

This new safety measure is being hailed as a potentially game-changing solution for the concussion epidemic. It will keep the game moving smoothly, while giving trainers and doctors enough time to assess an injured player. However, some people have brought up legitimate concerns, and fear that this measure takes control away from players and team doctors.

Let’s take a closer look at how these substitutions will work, when they come into effect, and whether we think they’ll have an impact on our favorite game.  

How Soccer Concussion Substitutions Will Work

As it stands now, soccer teams can make three in-game substitutions per match, according to the International Football Association Board (IFAB). The IFAB is the governing body that oversees the Laws of the Game for association football.

At their annual general meeting in Belfast, held on February 29th 2020, the IFAB agreed to begin implementing concussion substitutions, with a trial of the process at the Summer Olympic Games in July of this year. The new rule will allow teams to remove players following a head injury, and temporarily substitute similar players for at least ten minutes while a detailed concussion test is conducted. Currently, players with suspected head injuries are assessed on-pitch for no more than 3 minutes before the game must resume.

Protective or Not: An Argument for Both Sides

Like with any rule change in soccer, there’s heated debate surrounding these new rules for soccer substitutions.

Representatives from the English Football Association as well as the international player’s union strongly favored this new rule, and are supported by legions of doctors and researchers who have studied the effects of concussions. They believe that this new rule will give doctors the time that they need to safely assess players while keeping the game moving forward.

Despite its potential health benefits to players, there are some game officials and stakeholders who don’t agree with the new rule. Five years ago, when this exact same rule change was proposed to FIFA rule makers, they declined to implement them because they believed that they could be used to tactically game the system. They also believed that a rule like this could be an issue for grassroots teams, which would take away from the universality of the sport.

There has also been some discussion of involving impartial doctors, to ensure that teams cannot use this rule for tactical benefits. However, some health professionals disagree, and feel that to ensure the best possible care, players should be assessed by their team doctor who is more familiar with their health.  

Upcoming Soccer Concussion Substitutions

At the February 29th IFAB meeting, lively debate on concussion substitutions ended with rule makers agreeing to trial the new protocol in July 2020 at the Summer Olympic Games. They didn’t rule out extending the trial period to other competitions, such as the Euro 2020 or even upcoming English Premier League games.

Seeing the change in active play will be a real indication as to its long-term success, and IFAB members have pledged to continue talks with stakeholders to ensure its successful implementation.

What Storelli Has to Say About Substitutions

At Storelli, we were happy to see the rule modifications implemented by the IFAB. While they may leave some room for tactical gaming by coaches and players, we do not believe that this sort of sneaky maneuvering will become a serious concern (very practically, it’s not all that easy to fake a head injury, and practically it would be hard for a coach to communicate to a player during a game to fake a head injury so they can be subbed without using one of the 3 allowed substitutions…). Furthermore, we believe that the benefits will greatly outweigh any risks.

One of the reasons why we’re so passionate about protective gear is that we believe players, parents and coaches can and should be proactive in doing everything they can to reduce the risk of serious injuries. If you’re a player and you’re determined to do whatever you can to reduce the risks of head injuries, it may be wise to equip yourself with protective headgear like Storelli’s ExoShield Head Guard.

While there is no perfect solution against head injuries and more studies are needed to solidify the industry’s understanding of the value of headgear in soccer, existing data from institutions like the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab point to top-quality headgear lowering the risk of head injuries by as much as 84%. This type of preventive measure- coupled with productive rule changes such as the ones just implemented by IFAB- may help players and soccer administrators address some of the risk inherent in the game.

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