You are probably aware of ongoing discussions regarding head injuries in soccer (it’s much much worse for (American) football, of course, but it’s an issue for soccer too).
Full-blown concussions typically take center-stage, but medical professionals are now also worried about the many smaller sub-concussive blows to the head.
And there is increasing evidence that even just rapid head movements can cause long-term damage.
In response, U.S. Soccer recently introduced a powerful educational concussion video and the no-heading rule for players up to and including twelve years of age.
This caused some frustration, including concerns about our youngsters not being able to head the ball well when they are older.
Some also felt that this was an overreaction and that heading the ball safely (with the front of the head instead of the top or sides) can be taught from a young age.
The risks associated with heading balls is not yet properly understood. Scientists and medical professionals are working to understand this much better, but it will take some time.
In the meantime, I would like to share the experiences of a family friend with you.
Chris Nicholl was a professional soccer player and manager in the English Premier League. He played as a central defender for Aston Villa (1972–1977) (210 league appearances) and then Southampton (1977-1983) (228 league appearances).
Chris also played internationally for Northern Ireland (51 caps). After he retired from his playing career, Chris managed Southampton amongst other clubs.
I’ve added a vintage clip at the end of this article showing Chris’ most famous goal, scored during the League Cup Final against Everton.
But arguably his most memorable feat was scoring all four goals in a 2:2 draw between Aston Villa and Leicester City. 😁
Chris was interviewed by the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago and I’m pasting a key passage below. Click here for the full article.
“I know I’m brain damaged from heading footballs. I used to head 100 balls almost every day. When I was at Aston Villa I would watch all my team-mates going home in their cars and I would still be there on the training pitch with Ray Grayden who used to send them long. It’s definitely affected my memory. The balls were a lot heavier then.” Nicholl points to his nose which is unnaturally curved and crooked. “Maybe you can tell, I used to head more with my nose,” he adds. “It’s not recommended.”
To be clear, Chris’ example doesn’t prove that heading the ball causes brain damage nor how many headers per day/week/month are safe. His memory loss might simply be age related (he is 70).
However, the medical research community in England and now also the English FA is looking into pre-mature deaths and behavioral changes of former players.
Early evidence is showing that some died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same condition as American football players.
And three members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, believed to be caused by heading.
According to one health advocate in England, 75% to 80% of the players that contact her are centre-halves and centre-forwards.
“Obviously not all of them are, but the vast majority are. Although any player on the pitch can head the ball, centre halves and strikers head the ball more, especially in those days.”
Researchers at the University of Stirling, UK, found heading the ball just 20 times could make “small but significant changes in brain function” for the next 24 hours, when memory performance was reduced between 41 and 67 per cent.
I hope this serves as a cautionary tale.
Unfortunately, as a referee I still see too many coaches who ignore or down-play players’ head injuries during games and practices.
Let’s err on the side of caution for our youngsters, folks. The brain is precious and damage to it often doesn’t become apparent until later in life.
That damage is irreversible and fundamentally changes who you are as a person well before your pre-mature death.