Children aged 11 and under no longer be taught to head footballs during training in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in a new FA Guidelines.

The move comes after the results of a cohort study of 7676 former professional football players were published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year. The study found that players were around 3.5 times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases than the general population (The Lancet, January 25, 2020).

Heading football guidance

The new FA Guidelines key points

  • Heading guidance cover training for all age groups between under-six and under-18.
  • No heading in training in the foundation phase. (Aged 11 or under.)
  • Headers will be gradually more frequent in training throughout higher age groups.
  • Guidelines advise to not over-inflate ball when introducing heading.
  • The guidance provided on required ball sizes for training and matches for each age group.

The Football Association of Wales has said its guidance for coaches regarding children heading a football is still under review and will be made available later in the year 8-3, 2020 (read HERE).

The Scottish FA has led the way in Europe (American football, rugby and soccer are already restricted in the US), officially announcing a ban on under-12s heading the ball in training last January.

The main question is whether the aforementioned study and the American antecedents can provide direct evidence for such measures to prevent neurodegenerative diseases.

In this respect, William Stewart of the Department of Neuropathology at Queen Elizabeth University in Glasgow and one of the study authors said that “while these pathology studies are informative in many ways, they cannot provide insight into the real risks of neurodegenerative disease in these athletes” (see HERE).

heading football guidence

Heading football guidance. Further studies are needed

But a leading American specialist in brain injury supports the FA ban. Dr. Bennet Omalu, clinical professor of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California, found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in autopsies from former professional American football players. He thinks “it’s important to make football safer, particularly for children”. In 2015, the USA issued a similar ban on children under 12 years playing soccer.

In this regard, Andrew Maas, Professor of Neurosurgery at University Hospital Antwerp in Belgium, says that, despite the lack of direct evidence regarding heading in children, he still welcomes the move by the FA. “We need to be protective of our children. We know that young brains in children are still growing and developing and are more vulnerable. Moreover, the head of a child is smaller than that of an adult and neck muscles are weaker—the relative energy transfer by the impact of a soccer ball will, therefore, be greater.” But Dr. Willie Stewart, the consultant neuropathologist who led the University of Glasgow study, said to BBC (read HERE) he was “encouraged” to see the new guidelines. He added: “A lot more research is needed to understand the factors contributing to increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in footballers. Meanwhile, it is sensible to act to reduce exposure to the only recognized risk factor so far.”  Dr. Stewart added that he would like to see the new guidelines adopted by the wider game and not just in youth football.

Considering that the child is in a period of growth and development, the UK restriction seems—at least to us—reasonable until more studies would be performed.