We shared some news about this back in the summer, but it’s getting a bit more real now. The Radiological Society of North America, a leading group of professionals who take and analyze scans and x-rays, just shared the findings of a study on soccer players who head the ball.
They looked specifically at players who had been at it for a while, and players who headed the ball 1,000 to 1,500 times per year. These “super headers” showed a significant difference in brain matter for the regions that control attention, memory, executive functioning and visual functions.
They went on to say that the results were similar to people with traumatic brain injuries. Some have likened the findings to similar studies on football and hockey.
This shouldn’t come as shocking news.
Lori Chalupny was a captain of the U.S. Women’s team. She struggled to play in the World Cup because doctors were arguing about clearing her to play following a history of concussions.
Alecko Eskandarian was the MVP of the 2004 MLS Cup final. He had several in a row, and after flipping in his D.C. United debut was out for several seconds, and upon regaining his feet ran sideways for 15 yards while his teammates tried to steer him towards the sidelines.
Taylor Twellman was an MLS MVP who finally retired in 2010 after a series of concussions. His forte? Headers in the penalty area. MLS Commissioner Don Garber called him “our Tom Brady” and he was one of the league’s leading scorers. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated said that his success was the result of throwing his head at the ball “with the force of a bird smacking a window”.
Twellman knew he was in trouble when he went to watch the NBA Finals. When he closed his right eye he could still see Phil Jackson sitting right next to Doc Rivers. The only problem was that Jackson and Rivers were on opposing benches at opposite ends of the floor. Now that’s blurred vision!
In 1999, researchers at McGill University Health Center in Montreal, Canada did a comparative study of college soccer and football players (yes, Canadian football is still alive). They found that the instance of players feeling the symptoms of a concussion was pretty even between both sports. The duration and severity was pretty close too. They also found, somewhat surprisingly, that female soccer players had a slightly higher percentage of concussion than their male counterparts.
None of this is strong enough to call for regulation, but the professionals doing these studies did make some recommendations.
They suggested that youngsters should be wary of excessive heading. A younger player is much more likely to suffer a brain injury. They also warned against drills where players repeatedly headed the ball back and forth for extended periods. They also encouraged the use of headgear and mouthguards, neither of which are very popular with players.
At Disco Sports we like soccer, and like the fact that it moves quickly, involves great footwork and great teamwork. A well-placed header is like a perfectly executed crossing pass on the gridiron. But a bird smacking a window? Ouch.