How often have you heard of some sort of concussion or head-related injury occurring during a youth soccer game? As a competitive soccer player, I can confidently say that this is a very common scenario. A player will collide heads with another, or will hit the ball with the top of his head and will feel a slight disorientation. He will brush it off and continue to play the game he loves without paying any mind to what just happened. After the game, he goes home and goes through his regular post-game routine but something feels off. As he steps into the shower, he feels as if a dark cloud is invading his vision and his legs feel weak. The player has a concussion, an injury that can have pernicious consequences.
Countless stories have come to light in recent years of youth athletes receiving concussions that rule them out of normal lives for weeks and months at a time. Sports are an important thing for many people, but one cannot argue that health is not more important. If any precautions could be taken to reduce the risk of these dangerous head injuries, should they not be taken? U.S. Soccer has done just that with their recent Recognize to Recover initiative that prioritizes player safety above all else.
According to the initiative, all players at the age of 11 or younger must not head the ball in practice or games. Players of the ages 12 to 13 also must engage in a very limited amount of heading in practice and games. The rule is simply a measure to ensure the safety of kids as they grow and develop. Nothing about that is very controversial, right? Wrong.
Many soccer experts have opposed this initiative, labeling it as a step back for U.S. Soccer in a world of intense soccer competition. Folks argue that heading is an integral part of the game and if a child does not want to head the ball, they should not play. American soccer is still, to this day, playing a game of catch-up to European and South American academies that continue producing top-quality players. In a world of such intense competition, is it appropriate to put our players at a technical disadvantage?
The answer is yes. It is 100 percent appropriate and acceptable. U.S. Soccer has prioritized the safety of American youth over the quality of their heading ability. They have chosen to spearhead an initiative that elite academies around the world will hopefully try to mimic rather than scorning at it. U.S. Soccer will continue to pursue the betterment of development academies and American youth soccer while doing so in a safe manner.
The fact of the matter is that most of the kids that play youth soccer will not grow up to be professional athletes. They will grow up to be the engineers, scientists, writers, and lawyers of our future. They need to have healthy brains in order to live out happy, productive lives and concussions harm their neurological functioning. To jeopardize the safety of young kids with the aims of producing talented athletes is ludicrous. After all, the ability of a soccer player boils down to much more than the ability to head a ball.
Don’t get me wrong — heading the ball is vital. But it’s a skill that can be taught at the age of 14 just as it can be taught at a younger age. At young ages, children should be taught the fundamental basics of the game over anything else. This includes possession, tactics, and being able to plan ahead while moving for the ball. Heading the ball is a skill that will be added on at an age when coaches can be confident in teaching their players to hit the ball correctly.
Sports are a pillar in our society and they serve a very important role in the social lives of many kid but life has many other things to offer and there is no sense in endangering young athletes. With this initiative, U.S. Soccer has put out a very compelling message to the world. That message goes something like this: We value the safety of our children more than the extent of their athletic ability and while we strive to improve the quality of American soccer, we will do so in a safe and responsible manner.
Daniel Sokolin will be a senior at Westfield High School this fall.