New head ball rule in CYC soccer a safety-first approach

Sid Hastings

The Catholic Youth Apostolate's CYC Sports soccer program reports a smooth transition during the first year of its new rule prohibiting head balls by players in fourth grade and below.

The rule was implemented after recent research about brain injuries. The Sports Legacy Institute reports researchers have seen a close relationship between the amount of heading that a player does and brain abnormalities. Researchers also compared soccer players to swimmers, with swimmers' brains looking normal while the soccer players' brains had abnormalities in their white matter fiber tracts. Nerve cells transmit their messages to other nerve cells by way of their fiber tracts, or axons, and if the brain is violently shaken enough, a person can have disruption of their fiber tracts.

"I get it. It makes sense," said Mika Ross of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood while watching her daughter, Blakeli, play in a fourth-grade CYC contest Nov. 5 in Kirkwood Park. Ross, who's played soccer all her life, was never enthusiastic about heading balls and is aware of the research.

Amy Brand of St. Paul Parish in Fenton was watching her fourth-grade son, Reilly, play in Kirkwood. It's been a slight adjustment for the players, she said, since they were allowed to head balls previously. But she likes the rule, especially since she believes players need to be older in order to learn the proper technique.

Charlie Morgan, one of the referees of the game involving the boys teams, St. Paul and St. Peter, said he's only called a head ball penalty a few times. "Most of the kids didn't want to use their head anyway," he said.

Brian Strubhart, coach of the St. Paul team, said it was a little tough to teach players not to head the ball, especially players who are on club teams that allow head balls. "It doesn't really change the game at all," he said.

He has a daughter who plays in high school who had a head injury last season and sat out 10 days according to the Missouri State High School Athletic Association rules. She bumped heads with another player and continued playing. When she reinjured herself on a head ball, an assessment was done and she was required to sit out. She now is healed and playing well.

"I'm a big proponent of not rushing kids back from injuries," Strubhart said. "It's better to be safe than sorry, especially when you're dealing with concussions."

Trey Kirtian, coach of the St. Peter in Kirkwood boys team, said the rule has been easy to implement. Referees have been good at distinguishing between a player heading the ball and a player unable to get out of the way of a ball, he said.

Mike Cahill, chairperson of the St. Charles district of the CYC and a high school and youth referee, said soccer organizations are paying attention to concussion awareness, and that is a good development. The CYC's decision has been well-received and "seems to be working pretty well. I haven't heard any complaints," he said.

Coaches need to teach how to properly head the ball, Cahill added. Head injuries also occur when a player collides with another player, the ground or even the goal post, Cahill said. Fortunately those instances seldom occur among the youngest players, from what he's seen. A key also is for referees to call fouls and keep the games under control, he said. 

>> Concussions

• An estimated 3.8 million concussions occur each year.

• Only 1 in 6 concussions are diagnosed.

• A concussion is a serious injury to the brain resulting from the rapid acceleration or deceleration of brain tissue within the skull. Rapid movement causes brain tissue to change shape, which can stretch and damage brain cells. This damage also causes chemical and metabolic changes within the brain cells, making it more difficult for cells to function and communicate.

• Surveys of high school athletes after the season find that 20 percent had concussion symptoms after a head impact at least once over the course of the last season, and more than 50 percent of the contact sport athletes report at least one event in their career.

• Recovering from a concussion means rebalancing a delicate combination of chemicals within brain cells. This process takes a lot of energy, so it is important to conserve energy during recovery. When properly managed, the majority of concussion symptoms will resolve within a couple of weeks, however overexertion of brain cells during recovery can cause symptoms to persist for months or even years. An estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of concussion patients suffer from extended recovery, known as post-concussion syndrome.

• During recovery, the brain is more vulnerable to re-injury. In rare cases, a second concussion sustained during recovery can cause the brain to undergo massive swelling. This extremely rare condition is known as Second Impact Syndrome (SIS). Approximately half of SIS patients die from their injuries, and the survivors often suffer from lifelong catastrophic disability.

• The Concussion Legacy Foundation's Safer Soccer campaign recommends delaying heading in soccer until high school. When a concussion occurs, the first critical step is recognizing the injury and getting the athlete out of the game immediately.

Source: Concussion Legacy Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control

For more information:

• concussionfoundation.org

>> ThinkTaylor

ThinkTaylor was founded by former Major League Soccer all-star and current ESPN lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman. Twellman, a St. Louis University High School graduate, retired from professional soccer in 2010 due to complications from multiple concussions.

In 2008, Taylor suffered a concussion that led to the end of his career. It was a life-changing event as well. ThinkTaylor is dedicated to changing the culture regarding attitudes toward concussions. ThinkTaylor's message emphasizes awareness, recognition, education and putting the health of kids first. More information can be found at thinktaylor.org. 

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