The perfectly executed defensive header is one of the finer sights in football. Watching a player bravely rise above those around him to clear the ball away to safety using a combination of athleticism and sheer brute force is a joy to behold.
“But heading the ball causes brain damage!”
The thought swam in to my head as I watched my seven year old son Leo leap, Ronaldo-like, in to the air last weekend. He then proceeded to head the ball, somewhat Steve Bruce-like. No nonsense, away from the crowd of players.
It wasn’t a thought of my own…,
but one spoken in the voice of my wife, who was at home, blissfully unaware of the course of events.
The fear of him heading a football was not completely irrational. As a toddler, Leo was a headbanger. Not in a Tom Araya from Slayer sort of way, you understand, but in an “I-can’t-get-my-own-way-so-I’m-going-to-do-THIS!!!“ sort of way.
Frustrated when trying to take a lid off something? Headbutt the floor. A friend snatches a toy? Headbutt the floor twice. Once he had finally grown out of this (surprisingly common) behaviour, he has continued to terrorise his horrified parents with numerous falls and bangs to the head as he careers everywhere at his default speed – run.
All parents will also know the pressure of trying to ensure their children have a balanced upbringing and the role that sports have to play within that lifestyle. Football is obviously one sport that fills up many families’ weekends. Mum and Dad taking on a new role as chauffeurs to ferry their young prodigies to and fro home and away matches, training and events.
My son Leo has been practising Karate for a few years and once the football bug bit him and most of his friends, he was already on his way in his journey through the coloured belts. Training and match times between the two clash. The local team has been left to one side for now, other than irregular sessions as one-offs.
This particular one was new to him, an indoor under 10s kickabout run by Rochdale AFC.
At his clearance, a cheer rose from the coach on the sidelines. Two minutes later, the feat was repeated. Leo, buoyed by the reaction his first successful attempt had garnered, didn’t hesitate to have another go.
Two remarkable defensive headers from the smallest player on the pitch. Despite the fatherly pride that was swelling my own head, all the while, my wife’s voice reverberated around me.
Thank goodness she wasn’t on hand to see him, I thought.
I should have kept my own counsel and avoided her knowing. Unfortunately, due to Leo’s excitement at the unfolding events – he became quite the celebrity amongst the kids for a minute or two at the final whistle – keeping it quiet wasn’t an option and my pride dissipated.
Quite apart from his own history of bumps to the head, does his mother have a point?
Sadly, one of the more high-profile stories that featured problems from heading the ball is that off former West Bromwich Albion player Jeff Astle, who died in January 2002. The coroner ruled that he suffered from a degenerative brain disease caused by heading heavy leather footballs – something that his family were certain would be highlighted. Modern footballs are lighter than in previous eras, but could there still be an issue to address?
Back in 2011, a study of amateur footballers was undertaken by the University Hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. 32 volunteers had brain scans to research the effect that heading of the ball had on the brain. Those that were noted as “frequent headers” of the ball were found to have signs of mild traumatic brain injury.
The Doctor leading the research admitted that the action of heading the ball itself, in isolation, was not dangerous. “Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibres in the brain.”
He did, however, continue, “But repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to the degeneration of brain cells.”
The “frequent headers” brigade also performed worse on tests designed to check cognitive abilities like verbal memory and reaction times. This damage only appeared to occur in players who said that they headed the ball at least 1000 times a year. Or a few times a day for regular players/trainers.
Dr Andrew Rutherford from the School of Psychology at Keele University – who has also been researching the possible health implications of heading the ball for some time – responded to the findings that he is yet to be convinced by the evidence gathered so far. He believes most head trauma seen in football is “due to players clashing heads when challenging for a header, rather than contact with the ball.”
Further research has been recommended. Who knows, perhaps the sight of players wearing protective headgear could become more common, like goalkeeper Petr Cech or defender Cristian Chivu – both who suffered head injuries, but from clashes such as those highlighted by Dr Rutherford.
I recently read about a condition called acquired savant syndrome, in which ordinary people who suffer brain trauma suddenly develop almost-superhuman abilities: awaking to a newly acquired artistic or mathematical brilliance, a photographic memory or sudden high-level musical aptitude. Or even a sudden fluency in Welsh.
Perhaps I should mention this to my wife, balance out the worry with a brighter side? A multi-lingual child……
On second thoughts – it might be best just to keep my counsel this time…