Padded soccer headbands and foam helmets aren't very popular with the kids they're aimed at. Now a new study suggests young players may not benefit from wearing them: They do little to reduce the impact on the brain when a player heads the ball. Researcher Philip V. Bayly at Washington University in St. Louis concludes that wearing headgear may provide a "false sense of security."
Using a machine that tossed soccer balls at a head-shaped metal form equipped with sensors and mounted on a rubber neck, the researchers found that four types of soccer headgear provided "no measurable protection" at ball speeds of 20 and 26 mph, common in soccer heading. Only at 34 mph did the headgear reduce the impact even slightly, by about 10 percent. Virtually no difference in heading protection was found among the brands tested -- SoccerDocs, Kangeroo, Head Blast and Head'r -- whose products sell for $20 to $30. The study did not measure whether the headgear provides any protection against unintentional collisions.
The research, set for January publication in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine, is part of a project led by Washington University School of Medicine physician Rosanne S. Naunheim to examine the potential for subtle permanent brain damage from repetitive blows to the head. It was spurred by two European studies that found brain changes and lowered scores on mental reasoning tests among older professional and amateur soccer players.
More than 200 million people worldwide play soccer, many starting as youngsters, say Naunheim and Bayly. Both soccer parents themselves, they say the best protection is to discourage intentional heading of the ball among players under 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that youth soccer players "minimize heading the ball until more is known about the risks for brain injury."
No government or private standards have been set for soccer headgear, which has not caught on widely among youth players in this country. Rob Martella of US Youth Soccer, which represents 3.2 million players ages 4 to 19, said he has not seen it used at recreational or premier youth soccer games, except by players with medical conditions. The picture is much the same locally: "I do not know of anyone in the league who uses it," said Andrew P. Sutton, executive director of the DC Stoddert Soccer League.
Jeffrey Perlis, 14, of Bethesda, who plays on a National Capital Soccer League travel team, offers a more deadly pronouncement: "It's not cool."
For now, it appears there is no reason to try to convince players otherwise.
-- Cristine Russell