How Scotland is Tackling Head Injuries in Football and What They Can Learn From the US
For years, there have been tentative links made between heading and neurodegenerative diseases. Now, following the release of a recent report that suggests those links are increasingly credible, the Scottish FA have decided to take a stance on the issue according to BBC Scotland journalist, Chris McLaughlin. He reports they are expected to announce the banning of heading in players under the age of 12.
This comes following a report that was released in October last year, which appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. The report, Neurodegenerative Disease Mortality among Former Professional Soccer Players, concluded,
"in this retrospective epidemiological analysis, mortality from neurodegenerative disease was higher and mortality from other common diseases lower among former Scottish professional soccer players than among match controls."
"Dementia related medications were prescribed more frequently to former players under controls."
According McLaughlin, "essentially, what this means is, this is the very first piece of scientific evidence to link dementia and football."
Throughout the years there have suggestions and anecdotal evidence linking the two but no comprehensive study had been done. That has changed.
"What the report said was that essentially, if you're a former football player, you are three and a half times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease than someone who makes up just the majority of your normal population."
While there will be plenty of more research to dig deeper to investigate the findings of this study the alarm bells are noteworthy and gave the Scottish FA concern. The explanation for cause for these alarming statistics is still unknown. But the Scottish FA isn't waiting to find out before it institutes this policy shift.
What Can The Scottish FA Learn from the US?
In 2014, the US Soccer Federation was forced to change its rules following a class-action lawsuit from players and parents in California against FIFA, US Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Organisation.
On January 1, 2016 news rules were implemented which stated that players aged 10 or younger would be prohibited from heading the ball and the practice would be greatly reduced for those aged between 11-13.
But the adjustments have had several unintended consequences according to John Curtis, a former player, USSF A-licensed coach and the founder of the National Center of Excellence Program.
"Some of the situations that occur are very farcical. You have a lot of very uneducated coaches over here in the US, and there is a win at all costs kind of mentality, even at the very youngest age groups. So you'll have coaches encouraging their kids to launch the ball into the penalty area knowing that the opposition cannot defend the ball properly by heading it clear."
"What you end up getting is loads of kids raising their feet to try and overhead, kick it and deal with it with their feet, or they try and shoulder the ball. There are all kinds of kind of incidents that occur as a result of that."
He recommends that the Scottish FA look at the rule change in context manner to avoid this. One suggestion he makes is not banning headers but instituting a rule where players can't kick the ball above waist height. "That may have been an easier way to say you can't head the ball."
"I think as a coach and anybody who is kind of involved in youth soccer, if the evidence is there, which I believe it is, it would make sense to try and restrict any possible head injuries. But the way that they're doing it, I'm not 100% certain it's the right way to go. I'm not sure that it's going to eliminate head injuries in the long run."
He notes that by eliminating heading players are also not prepared for when they do need to do when they're older.
"I was speaking to a parent the other day, whose son was actually in hospital with a serious brain injury and had to have an operation. He collided with a goalkeeper in a U-15, U-16 game in Pennsylvania. And those kind of injuries may come about because players don't know how to head the ball properly because they haven't learned to do at a younger age."