In a move that will have pretty big ramifications for kids football up and down the country, the English Football Association (FA) has announced it is to introduce new guidelines to limit how often children can head footballs during training.

The link between heading footballs and dementia

Only last month Scotland’s FA said it would be introducing a similar ban for under-12s, making it the first country in Europe to do so, while Bournemouth FC has introduced its own guidelines banning under 12 s from heading the ball in training. These decisions have been based on new research from Glasgow University revealing a possible link between football and the brain condition dementia.

The English FA commissioned a group to look into the issue of heading in junior football late last year after the findings revealed professional footballers are 3½ times more likely to die of dementia – a terribly cruel degenerative brain disease – than the average person.

The US has already banned children aged 10 and under from heading footballs and there are also restrictions on players aged 11-13 heading the ball during training sessions.

Limits apply to training, not matches

The English FA’s plans are yet to be finalised, but it must be reiterated that the restrictions will apply to training, and not matches.

By limiting exposure to heading in training, the FA clearly believes it is mitigating any risk and protecting the kids of today and future generations. After the release of Glasgow University’s study at the end of last year, the FA’s head of medicine Charlotte Cowie said:

The FA’s independently chaired research taskforce has instigated a review of possible changes to heading coaching and training at all levels to decrease overall exposure to heading without compromising technique.

It is imperative that football now does everything it can to further understand what caused this increased risk and what can be done to ensure that future generations of footballers are protected. charlotte cowie, fa head of medicine

Dispelling a myth

The tragic dementia cases involving the England 1966 World Cup legends Martin Peters, Ray Wilson and Nobby Stiles have helped shine a light on the issue, as did the dementia-related death of the former England international Jeff Astle, aged 59, in 2002. A coroner attributed his dementia to heading heavy leather footballs in the 60s and 70s.

Ernie Moss, all-time record goalscorer at Chesterfield FC, played between 1968 and 1992 and now suffers from dementia. He was a noted header of the ball – a big, strong centre forward and a prolific goalscorer. Ernie’s family passionately believe his dementia was caused by him repeatedly heading the old heavy leather footballs during his career in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Many opponents of the move to limit heading point to new lighter footballs. Glasgow University, however, are quick to point out this is a bit of a misnomer.

Contrary to popular opinion, the regulation weight of a football hasn’t changed for more than 100 years – just the design. The older balls, made of leather, would soak up water when they got wet and become heavier. When they were wet, however, they would fly through the air more slowly than modern synthetic ones, so would connect with the head with a similar force to today’s faster balls glasgow university

What do you think?

Heading will always be a part of football, but by restricting heading in training are we removing opportunities for kids to practice and improve their heading, or is it merely lessening unnecessary exposure to heading, thereby decreasing the risk of dementia in later life?

Many of us have sons and daughters involved in grassroots football – as parents, what do you think? Let us know in the comments on our Facebook page.

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