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Pa. School to Ban Soccer Headers for Middle Schoolers

Beginning this fall, middle school soccer players at a private school in Bryn Mawr, Pa., will no longer be allowed to head the ball under a policy announced last month.

The Washington Post's Chelsea Janes drew attention to the policy earlier this week, which came after school officials reviewed recent research regarding headers and concussions. According to a study presented in November 2011 at the Radiological Society of North America, for instance, athletes who often head soccer balls were found to have brain abnormalities similar to those found in patients with traumatic brain injuries. Dr. Robert Cantu, who published the book "Concussions and Our Kids" in 2012, also recommended restricting youth-athletes under the age of 14 from heading soccer balls.

In March 2012, however, a New York-based pediatrician warned against jumping to conclusions when interpreting the findings of studies linking soccer headers to concussions. There's no research demonstrating causation—i.e., headers aren't proven to cause long-term brain damage—but certain studies have suggested a correlation between headers and concussions.

And thus, The Shipley School has made the decision to prohibit its middle school soccer players from heading the ball during games.

"While we hope the risk of long-term consequences for soccer players who play only in middle or high school is low, the risk appears to be correlated with career length and cumulative exposure," wrote Steven S. Plitch, the head of school, in a letter to parents. "At this point in a young athlete's career, we cannot predict which of our athletes will go on to success (and therefore longer careers) in contact sports, and the available evidence supports postponing the introduction of repetitive brain trauma."

Plitch acknowledged that the new policy may cause "consternation" at first, but expressed hope that other schools will decide to follow suit. He also noted that the school's coaches were working with concussion experts to develop ways to teach proper heading techniques while protecting student-athletes from potential injury.

"While we know that this decision will not completely prevent concussions, we feel it will improve things for everyone," he wrote. "And though other schools and programs may not go this way now, many will follow suit quickly. In fact, some travel teams and schools across the country have already enacted similar policies. Some soccer experts believe that delaying the introduction of headers will allow for a greater focus and development of foot skills, which many believe is more closely correlated with future success."

Soccer is consistently associated with some of the highest concussion rates of all non-contact sports, both for males and females. Roughly 6.7 high school girls suffer a concussion per 10,000 athletic exposures (described as one instance of an athlete participating in one practice or one competition), according to a report released last fall by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. That's the highest rate of any girls' sport. Boys, meanwhile, averaged 4.2 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures, behind only football, lacrosse, and wrestling.

Though Shipley officials acknowledge they can't prevent student-athletes from heading the ball while playing with club teams, they're hopeful that the policy change will lead to a shift in mentality.

"At least we're lessening the blows to them while they're here," said athletic director Marc Duncan to the Post. "Maybe it'll teach them to think about it: Instead of heading the ball, I'll chest it next time. Maybe there's a different way I can redirect the ball. Why would you inflict hits on a young, developing brain when you can control that?"

The move may rankle soccer purists (especially with the World Cup around the corner), but there's sound logic behind it. Given that young brains are still very much in development, potentially stunting that growth in any way—say, via unnecessary repetitive head impacts—should be avoided at all costs.

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