The changes, which take immediate effect, are one of the first reactions to a 2019 study from the University of Glasgow on the incidence of degenerative brain disease in former professional soccer players. The research found ex-pro players were about 3½ times more likely to die of dementia compared with a control sample and five times more likely to die of Parkinson’s. The former soccer players were less likely to die of heart disease and some cancers, researchers found.
The policy changes touch every age group of youth soccer in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Primary schoolchildren are not to head the ball outside of matches, where headers are already rare. Players beginning in under-12 age groups can begin practicing headers once a month with a maximum of five attempts, although the “expectation is that heading should not be introduced at this stage,” while U-13 players can practice heading once a week with a five-attempt maximum. Players at the U-14, U-15 and U-16 levels can practice headers once a week with a 10-attempt maximum. None of those age groups should practice “contested” headers, on which players joust in the air with an opponent for the ball, the guidelines state.
Heading drills for older players “should be reduced as far as possible, taking into consideration the heading exposure in matches,” but can proceed without formal restriction.
“The updated guidelines are designed to help coaches remove repetitive and unnecessary heading from youth football in the earliest years, with a phased introduction at an age group considered most appropriate by our medical experts,” Scottish FA chief executive Ian Maxwell said in a statement. “It is important to reassure that heading is rare in youth football matches, but we are clear that the guidelines should mitigate any potential risks.”
The guidelines also call for players to use the lowest authorized pressure in soccer balls.
The leader of the Glasgow study told the BBC he was “encouraged” by the new regulations.
“A lot more research is needed to understand the factors contributing to increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in footballers,” said William Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Glasgow. “Meanwhile, it is sensible to act to reduce exposure to the only recognized risk factor so far.”
The rules mimic those instituted by the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2015 as part of a class-action settlement over a lawsuit that criticized the federation’s concussion protocols. USSF banned heading for children 10 and under and limited heading in practice for 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds. It also agreed to modify substitution rules to allow more time for medical evaluations of players who may have suffered head trauma, install more comprehensive return-to-play instructions for players coming back from concussions, and improve concussion awareness among players, coaches and parents.