Heading Practice Banned for Under 11s 

Nicky Broyd

February 24, 2020

Football associations (FA) in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have banned heading practice for primary school children with immediate effect. 

The ban doesn’t apply to matches.

It follows concerns about the long-term effects on the brain of repeated heading of the ball. This was highlighted last year with the publication of the University of Glasgow's FIELD Study, which showed former professional footballers had a higher risk of death from Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and motor neurone disease.

The Football Association of Wales is reported to be reviewing its guidance on children heading the ball.

'Prudent, Balanced and Measured Step'

The English FA's head of grassroots coaching Les Howie explains the decision on the Association's website.

"When the FIELD study was published in October 2019, it felt like an important milestone for our game. The FA played a crucial role in supporting the study, having joint-funded the research alongside the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association], and since it was published we’ve not stopped thinking about exactly what the research tells us and what the best steps are to take to support the game, from grassroots level to the top."

However, he said: "We do need to be mindful that the FIELD study did not show that heading the ball was the cause [of] the link with incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease in their sample group of ex-professional footballers who were born between 1900 and 1976. And, as a result, there was no evidence to suggest that heading the ball, at any level of the game, should be banned."

He said heading the ball was infrequent in children's football, where there are around two headers per match.

The new guidance on headers includes:

  • No heading in training for primary school age children

  • A graduated approach to heading for children aged 12 to under 16

  • Under 18 heading drills should be reduced

  • Footballs should not be over-inflated

"We believe that offering this best practice guidance to the game is a prudent, balanced and measured step to take," Mr Howie said.

"We've come together to implement steps to reduce and remove repetitive and unnecessary heading from youth football, without impacting how the game is played. We believe this is a natural evolution of our game.

"Of course, there'll be some people who will accuse us of being over cautious. We hope that over time and when new research is undertaken and further evidence emerges that this will be the case. However, in the interim, we believe that these are common sense, practical and graduated guidance."

FIELD Researcher 'Proud'

The guidelines were overseen by the Scottish FA medical consultant, Dr John MacLean, co-author of the FIELD study. In a statement, he said: "I am proud that the Scottish FA has taken a positive, proactive and proportionate approach to the findings of the FIELD study. Scottish football has taken a lead on the subject of head injury and trauma in sport, from becoming the first country in the world to produce cross-sport concussion guidelines - If In Doubt, Sit Them Out - to having one of the most advanced medical education programmes in sport.

"Since the publication of the report we have consulted with colleagues on the football and medical sides at the English FA and UEFA [Union of European Football Associations] and I believe the guidance will help provide reassurance for young players and their parents nationwide."

Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: "The recent FIELD study highlighted an increased dementia risk for ex-professional footballers in Scotland. While we don’t yet know the cause or causes of this increased risk, limiting unnecessary heading in children’s football is a practical step that minimises possible risks, ensuring that football remains as safe as possible in all forms.

"We need to see more research in order to unpick any link between football and dementia risk but until we know more, making sure the nation’s best loved game is played as safely as possible is a sensible approach. Only through sustained investment in dementia research will we keep people connected to their families, their worlds and themselves for longer."

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