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Following the Football Association’s (FA) announcement earlier this month that there are plans to restrict the amount of heading within youth football, Gary Herbert - partner and personal injury solicitor here at Potter Rees Dolan - called for the FA go one step further and ban the heading of footballs for under-12s as other countries have done.
This week, it was announced that the FA have now taken steps to do exactly that.
Updated "Heading Guidance"
Drawn up in conjunction with UEFA’s medical committee, the updated “Heading Guidance” states that children between the ages of 6 and 11 should not head the ball during training sessions and for children aged 12-16, a graduated approach will be taken when it comes to heading the ball during training. However, the guidelines don't include a limit for any age groups when it comes to heading the ball in matches.
The FA’s new chief executive, Mark Bullingham, said: “This updated heading guidance is an evolution of our current guidelines and will help coaches and teachers to reduce and remove repetitive and unnecessary heading from youth football.”
The updated guidelines follow the Scottish FA’s decision to prohibit under-12s heading the ball in training, after an in depth study by Glasgow University. The study, which began in January 2019 and was commissioned by both the FA and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), compared the deaths of 7,676 former players to 23,000 from the general population. The largest of its kind, the study shockingly found the “first links between playing professionally and dying from dementia”, with former professionals being 3.5 times as likely as a member of the public to die from brain disease and, more specifically, five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s, four times more likely to die of motor neurone disease and twice as likely to die of Parkinson’s.
The governing bodies were keen to stress that the results of the study did not prove that heading had caused the conditions experienced by former professionals. There is also an acknowledgement that heading is not a significant feature of competitive youth football, and therefor the ban will not be applied to matches.
The chief executive of the Scottish FA, Ian Maxwell, said: “While it is important to re-emphasise there is no research to suggest that heading in younger age groups was a contributory factor in the findings of the FIELD study into professional footballers, nevertheless Scottish football has a duty of care to young people, their parents and those responsible for their wellbeing throughout youth football.
“It is important to reassure that heading is rare in youth matches but we are clear that the guidelines should mitigate any potential risks.”
Decision welcomed by brain injury charity
Meanwhile, brain injury charities have welcomed the new guidance but are calling for yet more action to be taken - and quickly. Peter McCabe, chief executive of Headway – the brain association, said: “It seems entirely sensible to limit the number of times children are allowed to head footballs. The question is, is this enough? Should it be limited to children?
“We cannot allow for key questions to remain unanswered, such as at what age is it safe to head a football – if at all? Neither can we afford to wait 30 years for the results of a longitudinal study to reveal the answers or hesitate to introduce other common sense measures that protect players – such as concussion substitutes.”
Our Gary Herbert comments:
“It is pleasing that after a previously guarded response, the FA have followed the lead from other countries and banned heading for young children in training. I agree with Peter McCabe that further research is required to consider the continued effects on older children and adults, and to keep updating the research over time so that we can consider whether claims that the problem is easing with lighter modern footballs are in fact correct. What the FA have done is an important first step but more research is required.”
Gary is a Partner within the Personal Injury team here at Potter Rees Dolan. If you would like to speak with Gary regarding personal injury, head injuries or indeed any other aspect of this article, please call 0800 027 2557.