Last week, it was revealed that the Scottish Football Association are set to ban heading footballs in training for children under the age of 12. This comes as a result of a study by the University of Glasgow which found that former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia or other neurological diseases. Are these the suitable measures to take and should the English FA follow suit or are the SFA being over cautious?
For the past four years, I’ve coached football for children from the ages of 5-16 in Surrey. Specific sessions based around heading has always been something the company I work for have avoided. Any sort of head trauma, big or small for a child is dangerous, so, designing football sessions which would increase the odds of these sorts of permutations would be ridiculous. Parents would know however, that any sort of heading is quite rare in youth football. When the ball is in the air, players normally avoid heading it and let the ball bounce instead. On the odd occasion when a young player does head the ball, I have found myself celebrating it and congratulating the child audibly. Is this the right thing to be doing if there’s research out there suggesting it could be potentially harmful?
Unfortunately, the findings from the University of Glasgow could not attribute the increased chances of dementia to heading footballs specifically. Repeated concussions and old fashioned, heavy leather balls could have also been factors. Balls have certainly become lighter nowadays, so you would assume the risks are less, but why let there be a risk at all?
I think coaching for Under 12s should be technique orientated with the ball on the floor. The most improvement and learning can be made in these early years, in my opinion. All my sessions at this age, focus on technique, ball skills, passing, shooting, left foot, right foot. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. If you make the sessions enjoyable the kids love it and improve rapidly.
But how do you stop children from heading the ball in the back garden or in the park with their friends? For example, if their idol Cristiano Ronaldo scores a fantastic header (which we know he’s more than capable of) and they wish to emulate him in the garden, how do you police it? Shade has now been cast on what was originally an innocent thing.
I’ve played with many players (normally centre backs) who’s whole game is based around being a leader in defence with physicality and winning you individual duels. Winning your headers is a huge part of that. I’m sure we all can think of players who spring to mind with these attributes. Would we see a decrease in these types of players and the overall standard of heading if a heading ban was introduced? Would players like Peter Crouch (the all-time Premier League record holder for headed goals), Andy Carroll and Tim Cahill become a rarity?
It will be interesting to see whether the English FA will follow suit. If they did, it would be a huge change in the youth game as we know it. As a coach, a ban wouldn’t affect my sessions too much. But I’m not a parent. How would this ban on heading 12 affect you or your coaching?