More Dr. Koutures Thoughts on Heading and Helmet Use in Youth Soccer
The United States Soccer Federation decision to not have players under age 12 engage in heading activities and to limit heading exposure in players between age 12 to 13 has fueled many interesting exam room discussions about soccer-related concussions that have led me to develop particular thoughts on the topic, including a very unexpected and somewhat troubling take on the use of of soft helmets.
Many of my ideas have been incorporated in two thoughtful articles written by Lindsey Barton Straus, JD from Mom'sTEAM. Highly recommend taking the time to read both, as she very adeptly captures my experience and research with this important topic:
- U.S. Soccer Bans Soccer Heading At Age 10 And Below, Practice Limits for 11- to 13-year-olds
- Heading in Youth Soccer: The Debate Continues
One of the main take-home points that underlies my philosophy and is echoed by several other interviewed authorities emphasized an individualized approach to determining readiness to initiate heading.
While certain categorical age-based decisions are far easier to implement, as we are continually taught in pediatric medicine, the focus should more often be placed on each child's developmental age rather than their chronologic age.
Another maxim in pediatrics- never hesitate to have a realistic discussion about a difficult topic- in this case, a dialogue between player, coach, family and medical professionals as needed to make the best decision for each athlete.
Having several such realistic discussions about preventing head injuries and making return to play decisions after concussion has also brought a unique, if not cynical insight into a related controversial topic, the use of soft helmets to reduce head injuries in soccer.
From a professional standpoint, I have always been somewhat unconvinced about the true protective value of soft helmets in soccer, and have never mandated that an athlete must wear one in order to continue playing the sport.
It didn't take long for me to learn that most of my young athletes shared my apprehension about helmet use.
However, their lack of interest wasn't due to their reading of the medical literature, or a more typical adolescent rebellion against parent/coach/medical professional authority.
Rather, they were afraid to wear them for fear of being a target.
"If I am the only one, or only one of a few that are on the field with a helmet, my opponents will come after me."
After hearing this concern several times over, I must admit that now when asked by a parent about my opinion on helmet use, I reflexively turn to the child and ask them to truthfully tell me their opinion.
Sure enough, I get reminded of the fear of being a target. Definitely makes the parents think a bit differently about helmet use, and given the lack of consistent evidence supporting their use, definitely influences my decision.
This may not be the most scientific way to form a response, and definitely is a sobering reflection on the competitive environment faced by many young players, but it does provide a practical and necessary real-world platform to best address each individual player's needs, concerns, and future expectations.
Curious if others have encountered hesitation to wear soft helmets based on perceived risk of being singled out on the playing field? Does this information change opinion on possible helmet use?