We need to keep researching the effects of heading the ball

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We’re a few years away from having a serious discussion about the effects of heading the ball. But that discussion’s coming, and the sooner, the better. It’s impossible to persist in the illusion soccer will dodge that scrutiny when you read stories like today’s at The New York Times.

Anne B. Sereno, a neurobiology professor in Houston, looked at cognitive function in high school girls soccer players. She and her colleagues took her iPads and their tests to one school’s varsity soccer practices. They noted how many times players were heading the ball, had them do some basic cognitive testing after sessions, and compared their results to non-soccer playing high school girls.

There’s already evidence suggesting repeated heading of the ball causes “subtle structural changes in certain parts of the brain” (that sounds like brain damage, to me). And as Sereno notes, “female soccer players are second only to football players in the number of concussions” incurred each year. The group she focused on may be particularly susceptible to the negatives of heading the ball.

What’d she find? Relying on an assessment called the anti-point test (which involves selecting cued boxes in a small matrix, as adapted for the iPad), Sereno collected some worrisome data:

It turned out, that the soccer players were not as adept at the anti-point test. As a group, their responses were slightly but significantly slower, suggesting some degree of cognitive impairment.

What is more, the more times a girl had headed the ball in the immediately preceding practice, the worse her scores were on the anti-point test.

Wondering whether the effects might, potentially, be cumulative, the researchers then re-ran their analysis, using information about how many years each soccer player had participated in the sport and also how many hours per week she currently practiced.

They found that the more years a girl had played, the slower she tended to be on the anti-point test.

Similarly, the more hours per week a girl played, the worse she performed on the anti-point test.

The Times piece stresses: We can’t base conclusions on these results. The study was too small in size and scope.

However, it’s a reason to continue. Or more readily, it’s part of a mandate. Heading the ball seems to have negative neurological consequences. We have to find out the extent of those consequences.

We also can learn from how this issue has unfolded in other sports. Football has been embarrassingly slow acknowledging their problems. They’ve only recently become proactive, and across the country, there’s still incredible reticence in acknowledging full contact football is not be a good idea for young children.

Boxing, as an industry, has never adapted to landscape that’s become less tolerant of a “the players know the risks” justification. It’s a logic you could use to justify the way soccer’s currently played.

Sports always evolve. Heading has not always been a part of soccer, though it has been for a long time. If there isn’t a way to sustainably head the ball, the sport needs to know.

We’re pretty far from that point. We don’t even have the data to justify broad conclusions, and once we do, that data may be better used to find solutions than indict the entire sport.

But we need to keep an open mind. And we need to keep pursuing this.