Heading a ball bad for kids' health

Safa says it will implement a new rule that comes from Scottish, Irish and English football chiefs that U12 kids should not head the ball at training. Mnotho Nhassengo, above, of Durban uses his legs at training instead. / Sandile Ndlovu
Safa says it will implement a new rule that comes from Scottish, Irish and English football chiefs that U12 kids should not head the ball at training. Mnotho Nhassengo, above, of Durban uses his legs at training instead. / Sandile Ndlovu

Children under the age of 12 are banned from heading soccer balls in training to protect them against brain damage.

While the SA Football Association has not formally announced the ban, the soccer authority said it would have to implement the new rule that came from Scottish, Irish and English football chiefs.

"If those associations have adopted the rule, we have to implement it too. Football is universal, and we do not work in isolation. Those associations have the mandate to make the rules," the association's spokesperson Dominic Chimhavi told Sowetan's sister publication TimesSelect.

On Monday, football associations in England, Scotland and Ireland announced the rule would come into immediate effect following a "landmark field study".

Looking at the health records of 7,676 former players and 23,000 members of the public, the University of Glasgow found professionals were 3.5 times as likely than a member of the public to die from brain disease and, more specifically, five times more likely to die of Alzheimer's, four times more likely to die of motor neuron disease and twice as likely to die of Parkinson's.

Drawn up in conjunction with the Union of European Football Associations' (Uefa) medical committee, the new guideline states that children between the ages of six and 11 should no longer head the ball during training sessions. However, the ban does not apply to games.

Durban mother Luyanda Nhassengo is not concerned about her 11-year-old son heading the ball during the game. Her main concern since Mnotho started playing five years ago has been the ball hitting him.

"The concern I've had was the ball hitting him as I've seen the painful reaction the young boys have when this happens," she said.

Mnotho trains with SuperSport United Soccer Schools, which even used heavier balls to discourage heading.

SuperSport United Soccer Schools head Nick Aresi said: "Our coaching programme originated in the United Kingdom, and this debate has been going on for a very long time in England, and they have done a lot of research and studies.

"It's pretty obvious that all children need to be protected in sport. When they ride a bicycle they wear a helmet, when they wrestle or rock-climb, they wear headgear.

"The problem is that we look at kids as adults, and we watch the game on television and we want the kids to play an adult game.

"We use smaller and heavier balls. Our balls don't really bounce. They die on the second bounce and the reason for that is to keep the ball on the floor."

Aresi said children don't really want to head a ball.

"Their protection mechanism says don't head. They are fearful of doing it," he said.

Jared Carlson of Euro Soccer Schools, which also trains children across the country, agreed that children were scared to head a ball.

"The problem with some coaches these days is that they are old-school, so they throw the ball as high as possible in the air and tell the kids not to be scared.

"That's not proactive training. We do not promote heading. Any kid that is under 12 years will be heading in the match, but we don't train heading," said Carlson.

He said there was no need for young children to train to head a ball when they were most likely not going to use heading in a game.

"A person may head a ball once or twice in a match, but for a person to now go and train religiously every week, that is definitely going to cause damage. So, why train heading if only one or two players are going to head it once or twice?" he asked.

However, Bafana Bafana technical director Neil Tovey believes children should be taught how to correctly head a ball.

"You can teach youngsters that if you head the ball correctly, then it won't affect you because you are not supposed to head it on the top of your head, you're supposed to head it on your forehead.

"It all boils down to the correct technique. Yes, you are going to get hit in the head at times, but that is part of the game, so generally it comes down to teaching them how to do it correctly," he said.

The former Bafana captain said coaches should use a soft plastic ball to show children how to head it. He questioned if the research behind the ban was conclusive.

"They have done their research, but I believe you train how you play and you play how you train.

"I know these players are youngsters, so their bodies may have not developed, especially their heads, but there are not many times they head in games. Did the research look at whether the affected players may have had a clash of heads in the game later on? What else did they look at?"

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