The Professional Footballers Association has just announced they are setting up a task force to examine the issue of brain injury diseases in Football, a sport not usually associated with a high risk of concussive events.
It comes off the back of a high profile studies from Glasgow University that found footballers were between 2x and 5x more likely to die of a brain disease such as dementia and parkinsons than the average member of the public.
It would appear that there’s a clear link between the constant heading of the ball, both in training and competition, to the surge of ex-players contracting these degenerative disorders.
In some circles this has raised the question, is it time to ban heading in Football?
At Neuroptimax we believe wholeheartedly that you should be able to compete and train in the sports you love - it’s why we sponsor athletes. We also believe that you should try and do things as safely as possible because there’s always a life after sport - it’s why we created the best brain health and performance supplement on the market.
So, when there are rallying cries to ban aspects of a sport because of a link to injury risks, it is worth looking at in a bit more detail.
There is a murky truth that ‘back in the day’, footballs weighed more than they do today.
Footballs today must have a dry weight of between 12oz-14oz, exactly the same as they did back in 1937.
What has changed is the material that they are made from and their ability to retain water. Natural leathers, stitching and other aspects of the ball meant that they could increase in weight significantly during a game due to water absorption. It wasn’t until the 1980s that there was a universally used water resistant ball available.
Heading a ball that weighed almost twice as much as it should, repetitively, would have had serious consequences for cumulative neurological damage.
While balls have become less dangerous due to reduced water absorption, they have also become more dangerous due the increased speed they can travel at in the modern game. Advancements in aerodynamics as well as the power athletes can kick have both caused significant increases in ball velocity.
It goes without saying that heading an +80mph ball is not something that should be done regularly. However, balls are frequently struck at this speed and higher with the fastest ever shot being clocked at a blistering 136mph.
Frequency of training.
England legend Sir Geoff Hurst commented on his training schedule, saying…
"I look at my club West Ham, we had a ball hanging from the ceiling in the gym, you'd spend half an hour, 45 minutes practising heading a ball swinging from the ceiling. We'd play head tennis in the gym and then you get onto the field and you'd practise what we were well-known for at West Ham, which was the near-post crosses and the near-post headers. That could be 20 minutes, half an hour.”
Clearly, this level of heading frequency is on par with taking a constant stream of jabs to the forehead in sparring for 45 minutes - something no boxer would ever advise doing.
When addressing the issue of heading in Football, something that has to be looked at is training protocols, how to enforce them and make sure players aren’t unwittingly putting themselves at risk of causing long term injuries.
Age appropriate training.
One of the most significant breakthroughs in our understanding of brain injuries is the risk posed to youth athletes from concussive events.
A single concussive event under the age of 20 increases the risk of degenerative brain diseases by 17%.
This statistic is not well known and is especially concerning in sports like Rugby, Boxing or even Football - where training and competition at youth level is intense and accidents do happen.
Understanding how head injuries can have consequences decades into the future should inform training protocols so that youth players aren’t put in dangerous situations unnecessarily.
While the recommendations of the Professional Footballers Association is a long way off yet - what is clear is that there are some real issues facing the sport, both now and in the future.
It would seem that removing heading from the game of football seems to be an overreaction, however, there could be some real value in reducing its prevalence in the youth game and making adjustments to training protocols throughout the sport.