Wednesday, June 25, 2014

CTE and Soccer

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy - destruction of the brain by repeated impacts - is well documented in boxing, American football, and hockey, but now there is evidence that soccer players get it too.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head, has been found posthumously in a 29-year-old former soccer player, the strongest indication yet that the condition is not limited to athletes who played sports known for violent collisions, like football and boxing.

Researchers at Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System, who have diagnosed scores of cases of C.T.E., said the player, Patrick Grange of Albuquerque, was the first named soccer player found to have C.T.E. On a four-point scale of severity, his disease was considered Stage 2.

So does heading the ball cause brain damage? A hard driven soccer ball hits with a lot of force, but it's very rare to see a player dazed by collision with the ball. If this World Cup is representative, though, it's not at all rare for players to get their bell rung by colliding their heads with hard body parts of other players - usually heads, elbows, or knees. Most of the time, though, those collisions occur when you are trying to head the ball. I got my own mild soccer concussion when another player and I were competing to head the ball and he clocked me with his elbow.

Youth soccer coaches in the US are now advised not to let their players head the ball at young ages.

...A new concussion safety campaign is being mounted to delay use of headers by U.S. youth players until high school age.

The joint effort was announced Wednesday by the Sports Legacy Institute, based in Boston, and the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Brandi Chastain, whose penalty kick won the Women's World Cup for the USA against China in 1999, is on the board of the ISLE.

"I believe that the benefits of developing heading skills as children are not worth the thousands of additional concussions that youth soccer players will suffer," Chastain says in a press release.

"As a parent, I won't allow my children to head the ball before high school, and as a coach I would prefer my players focused solely on foot skills as they develop their love of the game. I believe this change will create better and safer soccer."

Of course high school might still be way too early. In any case, foot skills are by far more challenging to learn than heading, so it makes sense to concentrate on them.