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Former U.S. Women's Soccer Stars Seek to Limit Youth-Soccer Headers

Remember when John Anthony Brooks of the United States' men's national soccer team headed in the game-winning goal against Ghana in both teams' opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup? If a group of former U.S. women's soccer stars have their way, youth-soccer players won't have a chance to emulate his heroics until they reach high school.

Brandi Chastain, Cindy Parlow Cone, and Joy Fawcett teamed with the Sports Legacy Institute and the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics to announce the new initiative, called Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer, on June 25. They're calling for all middle school soccer teams and under-14 youth-soccer leagues to ban heading in an attempt to reduce the risk of concussions.

"As a professional and now a parent and coach, I believe that the benefits of developing heading skills as children are not worth the thousands of additional concussions that youth-soccer players will suffer," said Chastain, who hammered home the game-winning penalty shot in the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup final, in a statement. "As a parent, I won't allow my children to head the ball before high school, and as a coach I would prefer my players had focused solely on foot skills as they develop their love of the game. I believe this change will create better and safer soccer."

Brandi-Chastain-soccer-header-blog.jpg

According to a study presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, athletes who head soccer balls were found to have brain abnormalities similar to those found in patients with traumatic brain injuries. However, in a March 2012 perspective piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association," New York-based pediatrician Dr. Ann R. Punnoose urged caution when evaluating the dangers youth-soccer headers presented.

"Until researchers proceed with better studies that determine exactly how heading affects the brain, whether the practice might pose a risk to children remains an open question," she wrote.

Though further studies have yet to discover a definitive causal link between headers and concussions, on-field data has begun to pour in over the past few years. A Washington state-based study published earlier this year in JAMA Pediatrics found headers to be responsible for the highest number of concussions for female middle-school soccer players in the state (18 in total, 30.5 percent of the reported concussions).

According to a report released last fall by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, 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) while playing soccer, which is the highest rate of any girls' sport. Boys' soccer players, meanwhile, averaged 4.2 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures, behind only football, lacrosse, and wrestling.

Data such as that led the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., to ban soccer headers for middle schoolers beginning this fall. What the former U.S. women's national team stars want is for other schools and under-14 leagues to follow Shipley's lead.

"With good coaching, heading skills can be learned during the high school years. Up until the high school age, the focus should be on coordination, technical skills, and spatial awareness," said Parlow Cone in a statement. "Delaying the teaching of heading skills, while still preparing players for heading by teaching jumping and landing and strengthening the neck, not only will help make the sport safer but also is developmentally appropriate."

Photo: USA player Brandi Chastain, 6, clears the ball as Iceland's Margret Vidarsdottir watches during a friendly match in 2004 in Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar/AP-File)

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