Whether young children should use their heads on the football field has been controversial in recent years. In 2015, US Youth Soccer, the organization that oversees most of the country’s leagues for children and teens, announced a ban on playing games and practices for under-11 participants over concerns that the game could contributes to concussions. In response, some football authorities have pointed out that young players are reportedly late in learning an essential football skill and that head concussions are rare in this age group. Now, a study presented last month at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual convention could help allay doubts about the current regulations, which came into effect in 2016.
According to studies of experienced adult soccer players, the steering can generate impact forces nearly equivalent to those of a helmet-to-helmet veneer. But less attention has been paid to the direction by young players and the cognitive effects that come with it, if any. Last year, however, researchers in Puerto Rico were granted permission to work with 30 boys and girls, ages 9 to 11, who played in a local youth league. (Children this age are allowed to travel to Puerto Rico.)
The youngsters took a series of cognitive tests and were then fitted with a specialized headband that recorded head movements and associated impacts as they played. Most kids ended up directing the ball at least once in three games. Data from the headbands indicate that their brains were subjected to acceleration forces ranging from 16 to 60 Gs. In adult gamers, 60 G during the head would be considered powerful enough to cause a concussion, although none of the children in the study were diagnosed with concussion. Most of the impacts were what researchers call “subconcussive” or below the 60G threshold.
Within 10 minutes after each play, the researchers asked the children to repeat the previous cognitive tests. Those who directed the ball at least once tended to score lower, albeit in slightly different ways, depending on their gender. The boys showed small drops in what is known as “fast processing” or the ability to quickly interpret new information when they hear it, while the girls were somewhat less good with “sequential memory” , which involves reading comprehension. The changes in test results were slight, says Yarimar Díaz-Rodríguez, a graduate student in neuroscience at Maimonides University in Buenos Aires, who led the study. And because the experience was so short, it’s impossible to know whether the drops would be persistent or cumulative if the kids continued to lead the ball. But it’s “a little worrying,” says Díaz-Rodríguez, that some of the children’s scores have dropped after just one title occurrence. The results also raise some doubts about the current guidelines for walking age, she said. Some of the children in the study were 11 years old, an age at which even players covered by U.S. football regulations can begin to walk around during practice. “I think we don’t know if such young children should be at the head,” says Díaz-Rodríguez.