Heading Footballs: Should the Game Change?

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February 26, 2017. Wembley Stadium, London, England; EFL League Cup final. Southampton versus Manchester United; Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United heads the ball to score his side's third goal in the 86th minute to make it 3-2. (Photo by John Patrick Fletcher/Action Plus via Getty Images)

Recently, the BBC have announced that the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association will be setting up a new commission to investigate brain-related injuries in football. The commission could ultimately decide to ban heading in football.

Heading Footballs: Should the Game Change?

If evidence is found to be supporting the claim that football causes brain damage, then how should the game change? Football will be a changed sport if a defender can’t head a ball. Another option is limiting the age and the number of times a player can head a ball. For example, banning players under 15 years of age from heading. Meanwhile, another solution is limiting senior players to heading the ball in matches and one training session only. A final solution is to change the football itself so that the impact when heading it is lessened.

Completely ban headers

Arguably, the best way in limiting damage is to remove headers from the game. However, this would revolutionise football. Suddenly, a defender is banned from heading the ball, so will have to either volley the ball first time or somehow control the ball. Where a simple header could defend a long ball, defenders would instead have to completely change their strategy. Meanwhile, the attackers can press the defenders and be successful for the majority of the time. When the ball is launched high into the air, there would be no way for the defender to clear the danger under pressure. Instead, the ball would either cannon off a leg, or chest, or would even be missed by the defender, allowing the striker to take the ball onto goal.

Completely banning headers would ruin the game in its current state. Football would produce incredibly high-scoring matches, which for some fans might seem an attractive proposition. But this interferes with an age-old traditional game, which has always included heading and closely fought matches. However, if this is the price to pay to prevent brain damage, it could be worth it.

Age limitations

Setting age limitations on who can head a football is a less radical move. Some clubs and youth teams have already incorporated this. In the United States, children under 10 years of age cannot head a football. This is probably the most rational move in dealing with the issue. This is because, at this age, a child’s brain is still developing, along with their skulls. If a child begins football as a 5-year-old and goes on to head the ball until 18, this seems to pose a much greater risk to their brain. Thus, by limiting heading in the early stages of development, this may prevent long-term injury.

However, depending on the age limit, this too could affect the development of some players. Some football players don’t even start playing till 12 or 13, so by using the American example, this would not affect these players’ development. But, an age restriction of anything closer to 18 years old could have a negative impact. This is because the element of heading a ball will be missing until the players reach this age. Therefore, the next generation of players will be late in developing their aerial awareness and positioning needed to head a ball properly. This could make the step up between youth and senior level much higher than it already is. Thus, carefully considering the age restriction could help to avoid this dilemma.

Reduce number of headers

For senior players and youth players alike, reducing the amount of exposure to headers could also help reduce brain injury. For example, by reducing heading to only on matchdays plus one training session a week, it would reduce exposure and thus the risk of injury.

However, it is quite likely that few players consistently head a football all week. For example, training does not always involve heading the ball. Training also consists of gym work, sprinting dynamics and other ball skills. But, a limit could help to reduce the long-term impact of brain injury.

Redesign the football

The football has already undergone significant changes in its lifetime. From an old stitched-up leather ball to modern, lighter footballs, there has been a positive improvement. Brain injury was much more likely with the old leather balls, which when absorbing water, became heavy and solid. Meanwhile, the modern footballs have much less impact on the head.

However, by redeveloping the balls, it could help to reduce their impact. Lightening the ball by using different materials could prevent water absorption. Although, the ball is already relatively light. Improving the ball would require further research and development. This is because an even lighter ball would become uncontrollable, especially in inclement weather.

Verdict

Playing football is increasingly becoming linked with brain injury. Whilst there is no clear-cut evidence yet, it is important to consider solutions to solving this issue. Banning heading completely would nullify any risk of injury at the expense of the game itself. Reducing the exposure to heading to matchdays and one training session could help a little in reducing the impact.

Another solution would be to redesign the football, but arguably it has little scope for improvement. The best solution is limiting the age of those able to head a football. If placed at the right age for safety, but also for the development of heading skills prior to senior football, this measure would help to limit long-term brain damage.

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