I joined my first soccer team when I was five years old – long before Mia Hamm made playing a possible profession for women and Brandi Chastain showed that girls could celebrate sporting achievements as giddily as any guy. But in my small town, sports were serious stuff, and in the fall, soccer was the only game around. Back then, we practiced “swarm” soccer, with everyone surrounding the ball in mass, but soon, we began to see the sport as strategic and skill-based – as the beautiful game that I would play well into my twenties.
I was always more scrappy than skilled in my playing style, but early on, the girls and boys who could juggle the ball, perform moves like the Beckenbauer, or who could bend it (before we knew who Beckham was) had a leg up. For me, being able to head the ball held the ultimate cache. Frankly, I never really mastered it, pulling a “turtle” when the ball came my way at high speeds more often than I would like to admit. And if you watched the women’s World Cup finals last weekend, you know that being able to use your head on the field makes you a much more potent threat to the competition that I could ever claim to be.
On Sunday, before Abbie Wambach even walked on the field for the finals against Japan, the New York Times had already named her “the best header in women’s soccer.” That was before she aggressively, but somehow elegantly, placed the ball in the net with her noggin. Short of a bicycle kick, a goal headed in is one of the most spectacular ways to score, and Wombach makes it look simple. But as I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder if this image would be around years from now, when this generation of young athletes graduates into the professional and international ranks.
Concussions among athletes are nothing new…From football to soccer to basketball, kids and adults have always suffered the occasional concussion during competition. But now, as with many aspects of youth sports, we know more. According to the CDC, 3.8 million Americans experience concussions every year. And in 2005, the number of children who visited the emergency room for concussions doubled the number of those who visited for the same ailment in 1997. In the past, we might have promoted the notion of “shaking it off” or “sucking it up,” and kids themselves were likely to push to return to the field versus taking a breather. Researchers have been focusing on figuring out the effects of this type of trauma on the developing brain for years, and as of late, it’s been garnering the concerned gaze of moms and dads. And, not surprisingly, there’s now an app for that. For $4 at the iTunes store or the Android marketplace, you can download an app that helps you monitor your child’s symptoms to see if they’re concussed and if you should be concerned.
And along with more severe injuries like concussions, the soccer community has examined how smart it is to help kids develop a skill that used to help them stand head and shoulders above the rest. While almost 12% of team-sport concussions are caused by girls’ soccer, most of those can be attributed to collisions with other players or with equipment (goalies colliding with posts, for example). And the research, to date, has been relatively inconclusive. Most studies show that heading the ball incorrectly (with the top of your head or with your eyes closed!) is much more likely to cause harm than the kind of deliberate, forehead force that Wombach employs. In truth, the average player heads the ball infrequently during a game, where the trajectory of the ball is a bit less predictable than it is in a controlled practice setting. But still, we may not be too far away from a time when heading the ball leads to heady debate. Are we too cautious with our kids, or rather, should we be taking more care to protect our kids from damaging a body part that can’t be repaired as easily as an ACL or a bum elbow? It might be too soon to tell, but certainly, the question of when to put kids back in the game and the price of putting the ball in the net will be just one more parenting dilemma that today’s moms and dads will have on their brains.