- Improve concussion awareness and education among youth coaches, referees, parents and players
- Instill uniform concussion management and return-to-play protocols for youth players
- Modify substitution rules to allow players who may have suffered a concussion during games to be evaluated without penalty
- Prohibit heading the ball for children 10 and under and limit the activity in practice only for ages 11 to 13.
Some are outraged over what they (wrongly) lament as the country going soft. Others are exuberant over a positive solution to a serious problem. They have gone so far to credit this move with enhancing our technical development and style of play. Let's look at this claim, and then delve into the questions that are raised by this suggestion of a complete ban.
But what does the ban really do? Is it a ban at all?
Bear in mind that these initiatives are only enforced in the USSDA and national team setups. Otherwise, US Soccer has said that they're guidelines, but not mandatory as of yet.
A spin-off argument has been made that banning heading will help develop a "proper" style of play. It's optimistically naive.
Go to the park and watch a U7 game of what amounts to be kickball and tell me how often players head the ball. They don't. In fact, most players at younger ages are absolutely frightened of the ball hitting their head. This doesn't stop them from booting the ball.
Why does this ban mean that players won't play long ball, route one soccer? The country is already held hostage at the youth levels by teams that successfully play kick and run soccer, and heading isn't the reason. The reason is because the fast player plays up top, the "big kicker" plays at the back, and everyone else gets to "enjoy" the show.
The ban doesn't address the education aspect of a first touch, the idea of controlling a ball rather than kicking it away. It doesn't address that educating coaches and players that passing on the ground is a critical stage in developing a players technical ability that is as important as developing moves and confidence to want the ball to beat defenders.
Coaches gaming the system, however, is out of our control. Good initiatives can be taken out of context and distorted for other purposes, but it bears reminding that this ban doesn't automatically transform a playing style.
This initiative from US Soccer may address concussions and head injuries but that is it.
There are teams out there who are trying to play the right way, possessing the ball, and there are teams out there who are playing the developmentally wrong way. That was before the initiative and it will remain after, because people always find a way to get around rules, especially when they're only suggested rules.
This article started as a way to address the idea that this initiative will act as a panacea for the "win at all costs" youth coaches that think possession is a useless buzz-word. It has turned into one just asking questions that don't have easy answers.
The ban raises questions. I have questions, and I haven't been able to find the answers in a suitable format. Today's article is more about helping find the best way to maximize player safety and development, and that involves all of you!
At the youngest ages, heading is not a developmentally appropriate skill to hone, but is completely ignoring it the answer? Does this zero-tolerance, zero-training policy (at the youngest ages) really help educate players especially when they're on their own, in an unstructured play environment? Can our prohibition on heading become an education on heading and the dangers? Which is more effective? Perhaps only time will tell.
Should younger players not be taught the basic technique of heading, if only using a beach ball or balloon, silly as that may sound, just to understand the best way to protect themselves if situations arise when they're playing with friends away from coach, mom, or dad's eyes?
You can agree with it or disagree with it, but the initiatives raise questions. My asking these questions doesn't mean I am against the initiatives. Asking questions doesn't make you old-fashioned, or anti-player safety. Asking questions ensures that players safety remains the priority, because assuming that an initiative solves every problem is just as silly as thinking that banning heading will ruin the game of soccer.
What are your thoughts? I think the idea at its foundation has well-intentions but the questions I have, I don't have any answers for. Is this a black and white issue? Is there an appropriate middle ground that maximizes player safety? Or is a zero-tolerance policy the only way to ensure player safety?