Heading the Ball Risks Brain Damage to Primary Age Children – UAE Schools Respond to Football Findings
Background – UK Bans Heading in Football Practice for All School Children Under 12 Years of Age.
A ban on heading in all football training for children up to the end of primary school age has been introduced with immediate effect across all schools in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The move follows the same decision in the United States in 2015 which already has a ban on heading for children to the age of 12.
Studies have found “indisputable” evidence that repeatedly heading the ball may link directly with long-term dementia in adults and short-term memory loss in children. Football and Soccer are currently options for boys and girls in many schools across the UAE, and is a core sport in British schools.
After the age of 12, to age 18, the new guidelines require a “graduated approach” with caution.
The decision follows the landmark FIELD study into footballers and brain disease, conducted by the University of Glasgow in 2019. Based on the health records of 7,676 former players and 23,000 members of the public, it is the largest study of its kind to be undertaken. The study found that former professional footballers are/were:
- twice as likely as members of the public to die of Parkinson’s;
- three and a half times as likely to die from brain disease;
- five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s; and,
- four times more likely to die of motor neurone disease.
Whilst the study is not definitive that heading caused the conditions experienced by former professionals, the evidence of a causal link was seen as sufficiently strong to justify the ban for children.
Reaction from Parents
Parents we have spoken with are divided on the issue.
Some parents have already criticised the ban on heading in training as not going far enough as it does not yet currently extend to heading in matches themselves. The UK government and Football Association, still believe that the relatively few headers in matches means that an outright ban is not required at this time. The development has also led to some parents raising questions over the safety of other areas of sport, including Rugby and American Football for children, given the serious, life changing injuries that can arise in these sports, albeit in few cases.
Other parents speaking to SchoolsCompared.com, decried the increasingly dominant “snowflake culture” in which wrapping up children in cotton wool was robbing children of the vital immediate child benefits of team sports and lifetime fitness.
The Views of Experts
The decision to ban heading footballs in Primary Schools follows extended studies and calls from within and outside the sport.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5, Dr. Bennett Omalu, and expert in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), said:
“The human brain floats like a balloon inside your skull so when you head the ball you suffer brain damage. You damage your brain when you head the ball […]. Playing soccer would increase your risk of suffering brain damage when you are much older and developing dementia and CTE.
It does not make sense to control an object travelling at a high velocity with your head.
I believe, eventually, at the professional level we need to restrict heading of the ball. It is dangerous.
Speaking specifically about children, Dr. Bennett Omalu continued:
“No child under the age of 18 should be heading the ball in soccer.
Kids under the age of 12 to 14 should play a less contact form of soccer which we should develop for them.
Kids between 12 and 18 can play but should not head the ball.
I know this is difficult for many people but science evolves. We change with time. Society changes. It is time for us to change.”
Response from UAE Schools.
Schools across the UAE are now considering what action to take.
Kirk Hilton, Director, Go Pro Football Academy, Dubai told SchoolsCompared.com:
“We do currently undertake heading practice at the U14s and above as we feel the players have matured and are physically ready at this age.
However, we do already share this approach to banning heading for younger children and concentrate more on general techniques in playing the ball on the ground.
Our general approach is that children shouldn’t be heading the ball until the age of 14 years of age.”
Paul Barrett, Head of Football, Dubai English Speaking College, told us:
“The football curriculum at Dubai English Speaking School and Dubai English Speaking College covers a limited amount of heading practice in training.
There is already so much for the students to learn about the game.
However, we will now certainly sit down and discuss if we need to take out the heading practice following the latest guidelines and research which has been released by the FA.
Although heading is a key skill in the game, especially for certain positions on the field, a child’s long term health and safety is always our first priority.
Going forward, I would imagine coaches and ourselves will need to come up with more creative ways to teach the heading skill. We may look to using very soft cushioned balls, for example, so players can learn the technique of heading safely during practice, this preparing them for when it happens in a real game situation.
It’s an interesting development.
We will take it seriously and adapt accordingly as more guidelines and research are released.“
Anthony Cashin, Principal, Kent College, responded:
“At Kent College, our coaching philosophy is to create a safe, fun and challenging environment for all of our pupils.
We use physical activity to develop happy pupils in an engaging, enabling and empowering environment based on traditional core values.
Student welfare and enjoyment is therefore at the forefront of all our decisions relating to sport.
In curriculum PE lessons and extra-curricular football practices we do not practice heading the ball. During fixtures, we follow the guidelines presented by DASSA.”
Fiona Cottam. Principal. Hartland International School Dubai said:
“We would never actively practice heading the ball at Hartlands International School. As far as school football goes, it is not something we practice.
However, is there heading the ball during practice? Yes, sometimes.
We think the decision of the FA may very well now change practice across UAE schools.
We operate under DASSA and we will also as a school follow best practice advice globally.
I know that DASSA are looking at this and we will respond.”
We will update this story as we receive further information from schools on how they intend to respond to the new British guidelines and current practice in the US.
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