Heads up for young soccer players

Injury: Pediatricians are now suggesting caution in the practice of 'heading' drills.

April 18, 1999|By Melissa Healy | Melissa Healy,Los Angeles Times

For Wylie Drummond, coach of the Mighty Blue Bashers, it's a moment of triumph -- and surprise -- when one of his 8- and 9-year-old players "heads" a ball down the field during play.

For the all-girl Bashers, such a soccer coaching feat means practice -- three or four minutes of "heading drills" a week, during which a girl will probably be bopped on the head 10 to 15 times by a ball tossed from 10 feet away.

"You lob this thing like a powder puff at them," he said. "That really doesn't jolt them."

Not everyone agrees. In fact, the nation's leading group of pediatricians is set to warn that for children and teens, the repeated practice of "heading" a soccer ball could result in lasting brain injury.

Meeting in Chicago next month, the American Academy of Pediatrics' sports medicine committee expects to prepare a statement on youth soccer safety that outlines existing research and, pending further studies, makes a case for restraint.

"We're putting out a word of caution," said Dr. Bernard Griesemer, who is drafting the statement. "On repetitive heading of soccer balls in young athletes, the bottom line is probably 'less is better.' "

Griesemer stressed that heading drills, in which a child's head is knocked repeatedly, are of greater concern to the pediatricians' group than is the occasional head-punt in the course of play.

In the last two decades, doctors' warnings have sunk youth boxing, brought compulsory batting helmets to Little League baseball and outfitted pee-wee hockey players with mouth guards and eye protection. Now, as coaches roll their eyes and parents hold their breath, doctors are focusing on soccer, the sport embraced as a safe alternative to football.

Pediatricians' concerns have been prompted largely by a pair of studies that compared the mental functioning of large groups of adult soccer players to adults of similar age and circumstance who did not play soccer. One was conducted in Norway, the other in the United States, and all involved soccer players who had begun practicing heading drills at a very early age.

In the Norwegian study of 106 former and still-active professional soccer players, 81 percent were found to have impairment of their attention, concentration, memory and judgment that ranged from mild to severe. The more recent U.S. study compared 60 young adult soccer players with a smaller group of nonplayers, and found that attention and concentration deficits were significantly more common among those who "headed" the ball most often.

The studies do not prove that the practice of heading is to blame, and they don't establish how much drilling might be dangerous to the developing brains of children. But they have appeared at a time when neuroscientists are demonstrating that the brain -- like any delicate tissue -- can be harmed over time by small, repeated stresses.

Against that backdrop, sports medicine specialists find the soccer studies alarming. And when it comes to the safety of children and the protection of their still-developing brains, the medical establishment is inclined to err on the side of caution.

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