A soccer match is one of the few times when you want a flying ball to hit you in the head. But could heading the ball cause a brain injury in the long run?
Picture it: Your team gets a corner in the 90th minute, you outleap the defender, and power the ball into the net using your head. The crowd roars, and you get your taste of glory!
But there’s a possibility that nodding the ball goalward is giving you not only 3 points, but the chance of getting brain injuries — especially after repeat knocks.
Soccer lovers and doctors increased the discussion about heading the ball in recent years — especially when the British media revealed how many players from the glory days of the English leagues lived with dementia.
True, most of these players used heavy leather balls, a far cry from the lighter, more noggin-friendly equipment of today. But the possibility of brain injuries are still enough to make any player hesitate before leaping into the air like a goal-hungry salmon.
One study showed that players may head the ball between 6 and 16 times per match — that’s 3,500 to 8,500 times they risk getting concussions over the course of a career! No trophy is worth brain injury. So, what gives?
Heads up: Exercise may generally help protect you against brain injury unless you’re actively getting hit in the head.
Heading and a concussion
When it comes to soccer-related head injuries, you’re most likely to pick up a concussion.
In fact, a research review showed that 22 percent of all soccer injuries are concussions. Anything from heading the ball awkwardly to knocking yourself out on the goalpost can cause ’em. (It’s OK, we’ve all been there.)
A concussion is that weird, groggy feeling you get when something hits you in the head with some force. Symptoms include:
That might sound like an average Sunday morning. But it’s actually a type of traumatic brain injury. And as soccer is the only sport where you use your head to stop an object at high speed, you may get a concussion in this way.
But one study showed that a concussion is most likely due to an unexpected ball (yup, those occasions when you got a solid whack in the face while minding your own business) rather than a deliberate header during play.
Heading and CTE
Have you heard of CTE? It stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Repeated bonks to the head (including from soccer) may lead to CTE, but there’s a lot that researchers still don’t fully understand about this type of brain injury.
It’s important to know that people living with CTE may have more challenging life experiences compared to those who don’t have CTE. Symptoms may vary but can include:
- feeling a lack of self-control
- behaving erratically (including experiencing episodes of aggression, depression, and suicidal thoughts)
- experiencing difficulties with memory more often than usual
- having a short attention span more often than usual
- trouble with planning tasks effectively
Because docs are still learning about CTE, more research is necessary to find links between the condition and heading a soccer ball.
A study involving ex-soccer-pros in Scotland found that they had a higher-than-average chance of developing neurodegenerative conditions. But until more data is available, no-one can really say for sure.
Even if you’re destined to be the next David Beckham or Megan Rapinoe, your brain box can get a bashing when playing soccer. (Not even including trying to work out why the referee made that utterly ludicrous decision.)
But how can you play the sport you love, while still keeping your gray matter as healthy as you can? Let us count the ways!
1. Learning the right way to head the ball
As with most things in life, there’s a right and wrong way to do it. And if you want to head a soccer ball the right way, ask your coach and team medic — there’s no-one better placed to give that advice.
They can teach you everything you need to know about correct technique and body positioning, especially if you mention that you’re worried about brain injuries. They can also run you through training drills to gradually level you up to full-pelt, championship-stealing headers that won’t injure your brain.
Start off right, and you’re lessening your chances of brain injuries straight away.
Most concussions happen when the ball hits you in the side of your head. You want it to land squarely in the center of your forehead — the thickest part of your skull.
2. Keep eye contact with the ball
It’s important to keep eye contact with the ball as it comes toward you. Remember, it’s the unexpectedness that causes a concussion most often — so stare at the ball and expect that sh*t.
It’s OK, you don’t need to have a staring contest with it! (That unblinking ball is gonna win.)
The expression has never been so accurate: keep your eye on the ball.
3. Wear protective headgear… but remember you’re not invincible
Just like boxing (which also involves repeated blows to the head), you can get headgear for soccer training. It’s common to see players wearing it in games, especially in the wake of pros like goalkeeper Petr Cech, who donned headwear after pretty traumatic injuries.
But are they effective? There hasn’t been enough conclusive research yet TBH. One study with high school students found that the headgear did little to change the number of concussions.
It’s also worth remembering that no headgear protects you completely from concussions. So, don’t go flying into challenges thinking that you’re immune from harm. You’ll probably get an unwanted owie for your troubles.
4. Play by the rules, and don’t take silly risks
It sounds so simple, and it kinda is — follow the rules of the game, and you’re much less likely to pick up a concussion. Or any sort of injury, for that matter.
Soccer’s rules aim to create the best game possible while keeping everyone safe. Think you can head that ball before your opponent if you’re just a bit more aggressive? Maybe you can, but if you know that it’s going to be a reckless, badly-timed challenge, leave it.
Not picking up a concussion might be more important. You’re also more likely to stay on the field and help your teammates, rather than becoming a substitute or a red/yellow cardholder.
Posture is everything, as anyone who’s ever watched a historical costume drama will tell you. But that goes double for soccer.
Heading a soccer ball correctly isn’t just about your head. Correct postures with your neck and torso also come into play. Getting them right will also help you avoid concussions and other negative effects of heading a ball (plus boost your power and accuracy — win-win).
Work with your coach on getting your head into the perfect position.
Communication with teammates is also important. If you and another player are both going for the ball, and you can sense that incoming collision, call out to make them aware of you.
It’s true that heading a soccer ball does appear to have potential for brain injuries down the line (especially if you’re doing it a lot).
You’re also likely to pick up bad head injuries from clashes with other players, heavy falls on the ground, or that pesky goalpost getting in the way of your glorious diving header.
But you can reduce your risk. Speak with your coach about your concerns, and learn the proper techniques for heading, both in the way you strike the ball with your head, and the posture of the rest of your body. Your brain will thank you for it.
You can also purchase headgear which can help to cushion the blows, leaving you to focus on lifting that trophy in front of the adoring masses. See you in the World Cup Final!