Youth soccer's crackdown on head hits gets mixed reviews in Sonoma County
Yendy Perez’s son Fabio owns headgear to protect him from concussions when he plays soccer. But Fabio, 13, no longer wears it because he says it impedes the way he feels and plays on the field.
If wearing a headband is an imposition, new rules handed down by the U.S. Soccer Federation last week that call for limiting young players’ ability to hit the ball with their heads in games and practices are likely to draw even more objection.
The new rules, the result of a lawsuit filed against the soccer federation and other youth soccer groups, bar players under the age of 10 from heading the ball and limit the number of headers in practice for those ages 11 to 13.
“For me, it’s taking away the beauty of the game, but at the same time, they are protecting the kids,” Yendy Perez said, watching her son practice with his Santa Rosa soccer club Thursday evening.
The new regulations received mixed reviews in Sonoma County, where thousands of kids play soccer. Some medical experts question whether the new guidelines are firm enough, and some soccer insiders wonder if the new rules will have a negative impact on “the beautiful game” and how it is taught and played locally and throughout the nation.
Ty Affleck, a doctor who heads Santa Rosa Sports and Family Medicine and is part of the nonprofit North Coast Concussion Management organization, called the federation’s move reactionary but still a step in the right direction.
“They are finally saying, ‘Hey, we need to step up and join what everybody else is doing with concussion care and get in line with things,’ which is smart, but behind the eight ball,” he said.
The NFL, NHL and the NCAA all have faced lawsuits over head injuries. The lawsuit that prompted the new rules also targeted the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, American Youth Soccer Association, U.S. Club Soccer and the California Youth Soccer Association.
Affleck disputed the notion that soccer’s governing body was addressing an age group too young to be heading the ball with any regularity.
“I think concussions are happening in that age group. It’s a lot less common than in older (age groups), but it is happening,” he said.
According to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, soccer was second only to football among sports connected to reported concussions. The rate of concussions among girl soccer players is higher than among boys.
Affleck said the preliminary directives from U.S. Soccer do not address how to train young athletes once they do reach the age when heading the ball is allowed.
“It’s kind of ill-defined what we are going to do about it,” he said. “We actually could benefit from doing some strengthening exercises to the neck.”
How it will affect player development and game strategy is unclear, coaches said.
“Are there going to be more high kicks? There are going to be some issues that will follow,” said Mark Marcarian, president of the 1,300-player Empire Soccer Club in Santa Rosa, as well as a coach for a club team and the Santa Rosa High School girls junior varsity squad.
“As a coach, my biggest fear is it’s a very big part of the game and they still have to learn how to do it properly,” Marcarian said.