Youth: The Physics of Soccer Impacts & Headgear

Jan 1, 2021

*This article is part of an educational series for soccer parents and players new to soccer*

The soccer world has turned its attention to head injuries in recent years. Now researchers are starting to look to science to help understand head injuries’ impact on players’ immediate health and long-term health. 

Coaches, players and parents are eager to find ways to reduce the risks of head injuries, especially concussions, during practice and matches. This post will look at the mechanics of what happens during both a soccer header and in a collision. We’ll also look at what this research tells us about the best ways to prevent traumatic brain injuries in players.

What is a Concussion?

A concussion, also known as a Traumatic Brain Injury (or TBI), happens when there is a sharp blow or impact to the head (from a fall, collision or hit).  This impact results in the brain tissue bouncing off the skull’s hard surface, causing significant damage to cells and nerves. The damage from a concussion can affect brain function, chemicals and, in some cases, causes dizziness, nausea, and vision problems. 

In addition to a full-blown concussion, brains can be affected by sub-concussive effects, which do not rise to a concussion level (e.g., where physical harm is immediately observable after impact). Still, they may be damaging to the health of the brain in the long term. In this way, headers (either directly or indirectly) may lead to both concussions and sub-concussive effects.

What Happens to Your Brain in a Header?

Heading is a specific action that occurs in soccer. The player uses their head to strike the ball and send it in a particular direction.

If done incorrectly, the ball’s force can impact the head and send the brain bouncing back into the skull. Researchers found that if a player is unprepared, their head and neck position increases the ball mass-contact mass ratio. This means that more force goes directly into the head from the ball and increases the injury risk.

In fact, in a 2018 retrospective study of high-school soccer players, concussions from heading the ball were only 28% of injuries, of which 70% of concussions were from player-to-player contact. Many researchers have questioned whether repeated heading has long-term cognitive effects, but so far, the research is not conclusive. 

When players are trained in the proper heading technique, including preparation and tensing the back and neck, it may help to disperse the force and absorb the impact of the ball through the whole body. This means that the head and brain do not sustain the ball’s full impact, and there is less of a velocity change for the brain inside the skull. However, new studies are shedding light on the potential risks of headers, and it’s possible that the risks may be inherent to the act of heading even with perfect form.

What Happens to Your Brain During a Collision?

The most common head injuries in soccer occur when a player collides with another player (or a player’s elbow, knee or head) going for the ball. If they hit head-on, the linear force of the impact causes the brain to strike against the inner skull in the same direction it was initially travelling. In this type of collision, the brain can also rebound and bounce back to hit the skull in the opposite direction causing damage to both areas of the brain. 

Some collisions or falls can cause rotational damage, damaging the brain without an impact or hit to the head. If a blow or fall is unexpected or comes at an angle, it can cause the head to snap back and place rotational force on the brain. In this type of injury, the brain impacts the skull at multiple sites and stretches nerves, and so the damage can be more significant. 

How Headgear May Protect Your Brain From Injury

A lab study by Virginia Tech has found that soccer headgear, specifically headgear like the Storelli ExoShield Soccer Head Guard, can reduce the risk of head injuries in soccer by as much as 84%. The helmet is made of military-grade foam designed to cushion harder blows, precisely like those from an impact from a knee, elbow, shoulder or head, which cause the most soccer head injuries.  

Although more research into head trauma in soccer is needed, soccer protective headgear may represent a promising step in preventing severe player head injuries. Contact us today for more information on this protective equipment and review our ExoShield Head Guard product page for more information and relevant data.
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