Youth soccer's crackdown on head hits gets mixed reviews in Sonoma County

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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.

While the new rules technically apply only to players on U.S. Soccer’s youth national teams and in its Development Academy programs, local officials believe most clubs will adopt the new plan voluntarily.

If the highest soccer organization in the country outlines new protocols, the scores of smaller organizing bodies will follow suit, they said.

“The bottom line is, it has to affect us,” Marcarian said.

Players, coaches, parents and referees will need to learn the new rules, he noted.

“We would have to actually educate the coaches and make sure there is not training of heading going on,” Marcarian said. “On the game field, that is (referee) education.”

Local soccer officials are still waiting for details on the new rules, the specifics of which are expected to be announced within 30 days, according to U.S. Soccer.

What happens if a 12-year-old heads the ball during a game? Will it be a drop ball? A change of possession? A yellow card?

And if a player does get knocked in the head, who decides when she goes back into the game? What will the new return-to-play protocol look like? How much is too much heading in practice for a 13-year-old? And when is a young player physically mature enough to learn how to head the ball properly?

“We have to wait and see,” said Kelcey Chaidez, technical director for Santa Rosa United, which has nearly 500 youth players. “If it’s to the detriment of development of a certain part of the game, then so be it. I fully support anything that makes the game safer without taking away the purity of the game.”

But there might have been a better way for the federation to address concussion worries, according to Chaidez.

Encouraging goalkeepers to roll the ball back into play rather than punt it would eliminate frequent in-air battles that can leave players with knocked heads, he said. It also promotes a cleaner, more skilled level of play that U.S. Soccer is pushing with a slew of other rule changes that go into effect next year.

“One good thing is we have been clamoring, as coaches, for the federation to become more involved, and now they are,” Chaidez said.

Jay Coester, whose son Tyler plays under-9 competitive soccer in Santa Rosa, said he’d rather see the emphasis put on learning proper technique early, rather than banning the practice altogether.

“There is risk to everything we do,” he said. “We can’t bubble-wrap the world. If there is impact, teach them how to do it correctly.”

Jim Hoese of Santa Rosa has played soccer his entire life, including at the collegiate level at UC Berkeley. He’s suffered at least one concussion because of soccer. But now he has two sons, 8 and 4, who both play the game.

While acknowledging that heading the ball is a key part of the game, Hoese is OK telling his sons to dial it back.

“I think, all in all, it’s probably good,” he said of the new rules. “I wonder about technique. At some point they are going to have to learn. But I don’t think that trumps safety.”

All agreed it will take a changed mindset to implement the changes.

One of soccer’s brightest stars is known for her prowess on headers. Abby Wambach, the most prolific scorer in U.S. soccer history, also is celebrated for her ferocity, enduring bloody clashes in the air, blackened eyes and a broken leg while playing.

Santa Rosa youth coach Tony Castillo questioned whether the United States can produce highly skilled soccer players if the rules here are tighter than those used in soccer power nations such as Brazil and Germany.

“We are just putting more restrictions on kids,” he said. “It takes away from their development.”

But backers of the new rule argue that for every Wambach, there are tens of thousands of youth players who will never reach such heights, and protecting them should be paramount.

“There is a counter-argument, obviously, to this ruling by the U.S. Soccer Federation, primarily by people concerned with the purity of the game and our ability to develop players to compete internationally,” said David Jacobson, spokesman for Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit group that trains coaches. “That just isn’t as important as kids’ safety and brain health. When you think about how few people are able to rise to that elite level of soccer and how many kids are put at risk in this vain attempt of reaching those levels, it just doesn’t add up.”

Dr. Todd Weitzenberg, a sports medicine specialist who is active in the North Coast Concussion Management group, said soccer’s move puts even more pressure on other sports that have high concussion rates, namely football.

“In a way, it challenges all youth sports,” Weitzenberg said. “How can we say kids can’t head a soccer ball but kids can play tackle football?”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or Podcasting on iTunes at “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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