PhotoSoccer has been growing in popularity in the U.S. for many years. Hundreds of thousands of school-aged athletes participate at varying levels of competition across the nation. Unfortunately, the increasingly physical nature of the sport has led to a high number of concussions.

Many of these concussions can be attributed to the high volume of players that the nation produces. From 1969 to 2014, the number of schools that offered a soccer program increased from 2,217 to 11,718. Boy players increased from roughly 49,593 to 417,419 in the same time span; there were no girls playing soccer in 1969, but that number had increased to 375,564 in 2014. The sheer increase in numbers would naturally lead to more injuries, including concussions.

Athlete-athlete contact

It would be easy to leave it at that, but researchers believe that there are other factors that contribute to the high concussion rate. R. Down Comstock, of the Colorado School of Public Health, and other researchers examined concussion data from 2005 through 2013, which comprised over three million athlete exposures (school-sanctioned soccer practices and competitions).

They found that instances of player-on-player contact were among the highest causes of concussions. For boys, 68.8 percent of all concussions resulted from player contact. This number decreased to 51.3 percent for girls, though that number is still very high.

Researchers were also able to focus on what players were doing when they were sustaining these concussions. Unlike other sports, soccer requires a player to actually use their head to strike the ball. This impact, along with collisions that occurred between players who contested for the same ball in the air, contributed to the largest number of concussions (78.1 percent for boys and 61.9 percent for girls).

Proper technique is key

Even though the researchers were able to determine why concussions were so widespread, it does not mean that they are likely to decrease. Soccer, especially in the U.S., is becoming more and more physical as time goes on. Even if leagues were to ban heading the ball, the numbers would not likely decline.

“We postulate that banning heading from soccer will have limited effectiveness as a primary prevention mechanism (i.e. in preventing concussion injuries) unless such a ban is combined with concurrent efforts to reduce athlete-athlete contact throughout the game,” the researchers said.

For now, the most important thing that players and coaches can do is practice and teach proper technique when heading or contesting the ball. Players should be sure to avoid heading the ball on unsafe areas of the head (usually right on top of the skull). Using one’s arms to secure an area (without pushing out) can also reduce dangerous athlete-athlete collisions.

The full study has been published in JAMA Pediatrics.  

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