University study aims to make heading the ball safer

University study aims to make heading the ball safer

Within the football world there is debate on whether heading should be allowed in junior football.

Different perspectives and approaches have been taken since 2015 with US Soccer and more recently the English and Scottish FAs introducing a ban on heading in young players.

NSFA has tuned into the debate by engaging in expert discussion and collaboration to find a ‘safe way’ of heading a football. This has led to us participating in a first of its kind Australian study to introduce a new perspective on the debate.

‘How can we make heading safer?’

Heading is an important part of the game. Australia’s most recognised and valued former player, Tim Cahill built his career, success and that of the Socceroo’s on his ability to head a ball.

However, we cannot hide from the concerns that repeatedly heading a ball may cause damage to the brain either from direct impact or from the brain colliding with a moving skull. We wouldn’t ask players to head a medicine ball now would we?! Research suggests that reducing head acceleration during head impacts can reduce brain movement leading to safer heading technique.

NSFA has joined forces with Dr Kerry Peek, a physiotherapist and injury reduction researcher from the University of Sydney to explore how we can safely maintain an integral part of our game by understanding and implementing safe heading practices.

Kerry and her team, including former Socceroo Dave Mitchell and neuropsychologist Dr Vincent Oxenham (Royal North Shore Hospital & Macquarie University) have been working alongside Northern Tigers FC Youth players since the commencement of football activity in June 2020.

In 2020, Kerry was awarded research funding from FIFA to study heading technique and the effectiveness of different neck strengthening exercises in reducing head acceleration during heading. Kerry also contributed to the drafting of the UEFA heading guidelines published in May 2020, using her 2 decades of experience in treating sport related head and neck injuries working with international athletes from Formula One to rugby union. She is now calling NTRA home as she puts her research hypotheses in heading to the test.

Dave Mitchell cited the potential importance of the findings from the study:

“As a former Australian Grassroots player to Olympic, Socceroo and European professional player and former Australian Coach of the Year I am proud to be involved in the research being done with our group headed by Dr. Kerry Peek. The consultation from Dr Vincent Oxenham, Edward Ferguson the CEO of NSFA giving access to the players for the study being done at Northern Tigers and the research gained will lay down the foundations that will help in setting up a proper curriculum for heading the ball.

“It is about being proactive in the advancement of the sport and the proper technique of heading the ball with a softer ball initially and then in stages to advance to a normal size ball for games. 

“The findings will certainly help in providing proper and safer guidelines for our next generation of young footballers.”

Alongside Tigers, Kerry will be collecting data gathered from various sports high schools throughout Sydney, including her ongoing research into heading incidences in NPL youth matches, the effects of ball properties on head acceleration and analysing heading technique in male and female players. The hope is that these research findings will inform how coaches and trainers can prepare players for heading at all levels of the game.

Kerry, “It is important that we investigate safer heading practices now because despite the many positive benefits associated with playing football, heading does carry its own risks particularly to young developing brains. It is essential that we protect the brain health of our next generation of players regardless of age, sex, playing level or experience as these athletes are our future and our children.”

Dr Oxenham shared his delight in the project and the impact it can have on football.

“As a neuropsychologist and football player, heading the ball, unconventionally, brings together two of my passions in life. Concussion and the impact of repeatedly heading a football coming at considerable speed has been hotly debated. At the end of the day, all of us play sport to keep healthy. It is therefore important to tease out whether an intrinsic aspect of what we are asked to do while we play football is detrimental to the development of our brains and to know whether it will impact the way the brain ages. Rather than banning heading, which I think is a knee jerk reaction to all the hype surrounding this topic, as a team of researchers we would rather make heading safer and at the same time enhance players’ performance. It’s been so great working with all the members of this team to add another angle to this debate. Kerry has a wealth of experience in preventing sports injuries. Dave brings in his knowledge as a professional football player and coach. Ed has been very forward-thinking in seeing the benefit of this study in moulding the future of football in Australia and the world. I’m really looking forward to analysing the results with the team and demonstrating that we can head safely at any age!”

Safer heading technique has also gained international attention recently when Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid FC, posted a series of neck strengthening exercises he undertakes at the gym in preparation for his role as a Centre Back for one of the world most successful football clubs.

NSFA CEO Ed Ferguson and Northern Tigers Technical Director Jason Eagar have also affirmed their support of the study.

“Northern Tigers FC is very proud to be associated with this project and contributing to this area of research,” said Eagar.

“Heading is a part of the game, I hope the findings from this important study contribute towards developing a model to practice safe and effective heading principles. Giving coaches and players the tools to develop safe heading techniques, just like all the other football specific techniques.”

“It is a privilege to be asked to take part in a study of this magnitude. Kerry’s study findings will be directly reported to FIFA which will help to direct the global conversation on many people’s minds about heading and we are grateful to be able to participate and provide benefit to the wider football community from this research,” Ferguson commented.

“Data continues to be collected at Northern Tigers FC with some interesting results coming through thus far. For now, we will leave you with this teaser. We look forward to continuing our work with Kerry and to share the results once the study is complete later this year.”

Whether you are Ramos, a Tigers youth player or a local NSFA Junior, this research will pave the way for how football approaches heading of a football in the future.

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