There’s a new study that purports to show that heading the ball in soccer is equivalent to getting punched by an amateur boxer. The question that’s left unanswered, of course, is whether this causes a concussion, and/or does any lasting damage.
Unfortunately, a link to the original research paper isn’t yet available, so it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about what the study results really mean. However, I play a lot of soccer, and I can tell you the following from direct personal experience:
Heading the ball can indeed cause concussions. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of ‘missing’ while heading a hard-kicked ball. In one particularly memorable instance, a cross-field zinger partly hit my left eye socket, I wasn’t positioned properly despite having plenty of time, and I was seeing stars and feeling woozy afterward. I’ve had enough concussions in my life (at least three that knocked me out entirely, as well as several others) to have a pretty good idea what they feel like, and this was it.
Good technique greatly moderates the effect of the impact. When I’ve headed the ball with proper technique, I’ve noticed a significant decrease in the ‘jarring’ sensation that inevitably accompanies heading a ball. Even under these ideal conditions, however, it’s currently impossible to know with certainty whether the brain is striking the inside of the skull. (Mythbusters – Are you paying attention?)
Good technique isn’t easy, and isn’t implemented effectively by everyone. To learn to head the ball correctly, you need to know what proper technique looks like, and practice it repeatedly under reasonably safe conditions. Most of us learned heading early in life from parent coaches, who may not know good technique, or who may not be able to teach it effectively. And some of us may not have the depth perception and sense of timing needed to head the ball well every time. (I certainly don’t.) This increases our odds of injury when we choose to head the ball.
With all that in mind, consider that…
It’s just a freakin’ game. I love soccer, and I’ve been seriously injured playing it, but unless you’re playing pro ball, it’s better to live with the dirty looks of your teammates than to take a chance on a poorly-executed header that might give you brain damage. And make sure you (and your soccer-loving kids) know proper heading technique.
Update 2013-3-8: A new study shows even light soccer headers cause declines in cognitive function, at least in the short term. Long term effects are as yet unknown.