Skip to comments.Soccer Headgear: Does It Do Any Good?
Posted on 11/27/2004 10:51:16 AM PST by neverdem
Most soccer players on the Santa Clara University women's team will enter the N.C.A.A. quarterfinals today wearing protective equipment - headgear - that is as controversial as it is lightweight.
In the 15 months since FIFA, soccer's world governing body, began permitting its use, headgear has been worn by thousands of American players from youth leagues to high schools to colleges to the pros. The headgear gained international visibility during the 2003 Women's World Cup and the Athens Olympics this summer.
This has triggered skepticism within the United States Soccer Federation, which contends that marketing to the fears of parents has trumped science regarding the effectiveness of headgear in preventing concussions.
This resistance has not dissuaded some youth clubs from requiring the use of headgear.
"I remember when baseball players didn't wear batting helmets," said Steve Ryan, commissioner of the Major Indoor Soccer League, which approves of headgear. "You see some resistance in soccer, which is natural. But I expect, over time, you will see it broadly accepted."
The founder of a San Diego-based company called Full90 said he had sold 100,000 pieces of headgear. The headgear resembles an enlarged headband, weighs less than 2 ounces, and covers the forehead, temples and occipital bone in back of the head. The device is made of shock-absorbing foam situated between an outer layer of Lycra and an inner layer of sweat-absorbing polypropylene. Several models are available for $24 to $39.
Full90 does not claim that its headgear prevents concussions. But the company does say the headgear can reduce, by up to 50 percent, the peak impact forces that occur during typical collisions when a player's head strikes another head, the ground, an elbow or a goal post.
The headgear debate is occurring at a time when some studies indicate that concussions occur in soccer at a rate similar to the rate in football.
There also is disagreement on whether heading the ball can cause concussions or long-term brain impairment. Studies have presented contradictory results, and the matter remains disputed as the soccer federation undertakes a long-term examination of head injuries.
The resolution of these head-related issues could have far-reaching health and financial impacts, given that nearly 18 million people play soccer in the United States.
On one side of the headgear argument is Jeff Skeen, founder of Full90. He said he developed the protective device after his daughter Lauren suffered two soccer-related concussions in high school, causing her to quit the sport.
At 46, Skeen possesses the righteousness of the aggrieved parent. He believes his product can reduce head injuries without giving an illicit advantage in heading the ball.
The soccer federation, which permits headgear but does not endorse it, fears that its wide use would undermine the assertion that soccer is a safe alternative to football, Skeen said. He likens the doubt of soccer officials to familiar but failed arguments once made against the use of bicycle helmets, automobile seat belts and soccer shin guards.
"They are trying to thwart the evolution of headgear in soccer because they think it will scare soccer moms away from the sign-up table," Skeen said of soccer federation officials. "And because they think it could be viewed as an admission that heading the ball itself is dangerous."
Calvin Williams, founder of the Kangaroo headgear company, said he thought soccer officials resisted the equipment because they felt "it is sissified."
Soccer federation officials disagree, saying their caution is based on scientific uncertainty.
Insufficient independent evidence exists to confirm that headgear can reduce the risk of head injuries, they say. Doctors affiliated with the federation also say that headgear is being marketed primarily to children, who least need them because there is little incidence of concussions in players under the age of 12.
Players might develop a false sense of security, relying on headgear instead of proper medical evaluation after suffering a concussion, federation doctors say. Or, they say, players might feel invincible in headgear and play with reckless aggressiveness, displaying behavior known as the Superman effect.
Rather than headgear, federation officials advocate better technique, stricter rules enforcement and improved officiating to reduce the number of head injuries. Some also recommend mouth guards and padded goal posts instead of padded headgear.
"There is no evidence headgear are going to help, and some theoretical stuff that it could hurt," said Dr. Gary Green, a clinical professor at the U.C.L.A. division of sports medicine who is on the soccer federation's medical advisory committee. "Why take a chance until this gets studied?"
Because Full90 pays some pro players (the equivalent of $50 to $100 per game, it says) and some state soccer associations ($4,000 to $10,000) to endorse its product, the soccer federation says the company's claims are suspect.
"We're talking about marketing and fear and manipulation," said Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, team physician for the United States national teams.
Not all medical soccer experts oppose headgear.
Dr. J. Scott Delaney of McGill University in Montreal said laboratory data, not yet published, does indicate that headgear could reduce impact forces by 10 to 30 percent. (The soccer federation says this involves low-level forces that don't cause concussions.) Delaney said an industry standard for headgear has been drafted and could be instituted in May.
In a study, published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, Delaney queried 328 Canadian university football players and 201 university soccer players as they reported to fall training camp in 1999. He found that 70.4 percent of the football players and 62.7 percent of the soccer players had experienced symptoms of a concussion in the previous year.
"We've shown concussions are a problem, and in the lab these things work," Delaney said of headgear. "What else do you need? Why wouldn't you start protecting people?"
Studies involving large numbers of players can occur only after headgear is used widely, said Delaney, who is team physician for the McGill soccer team and the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
The concern over concussions, and whether headgear can protect against them, is a growing issue for youth soccer associations. In September, the New York State West Youth Soccer Association, which governs more than 200 clubs and 80,000 youths in the Buffalo-Rochester area, voted to require headgear for all players under 14.
The association later retreated over concerns about liability and protests from some coaches and officials. Several coaches interviewed in Rochester wondered why headgear were proposed for young children and not for older teenagers, who are more likely to get concussions.
Others said risk was inherent in any sport.
"Where are you going to draw the line? Make everyone wear knee braces?" said Tom Maines, who coaches an under-10 boys team in Brockport, N.Y.
Some players resist headgear on aesthetic grounds.
"It looks goofy," said Brittany Myles, 13, of Syracuse.
Ross Paule, a midfielder for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer, wore Full90 headgear for a dozen games in the recently completed season, seeking some security after suffering three earlier concussions.
"I'm on the fence," said Paule, who was not paid to endorse the headgear. "I don't agree it should be mandated. If something makes you comfortable, why not?" He added: "I can't tell you if it was a huge help. When I got hit one time, maybe it gave me a little extra cushion."
Any club or association that makes headgear compulsory risks losing its affiliation with the United States Soccer Federation, Dr. S. Robert Contiguglia, its president, said.
But that threat is either unknown or ignored by the Temecula Valley Soccer Association in Southern California, which for three seasons has required headgear for players under 8. Peter Schilperoort, president of the association, said headgear prevented bumps and cuts previously suffered by his players, calling the equipment "the best thing since sliced bread."
The De Anza Force soccer club of Cupertino, Calif., will require headgear for players under 17 beginning in March, said Tom Pridham, a club official. Both the Temecula and De Anza clubs are sponsored by Full90.
Jerry Smith, coach of the Santa Clara women's team, which received free headgear from Full90, said the equipment made his players more confident in challenging balls in the air, and more assertive, but not overly so.
Anson Dorrance, who has coached the women's team at North Carolina to 18 national championships, said compulsory use of shin guards had not changed the nature of soccer, as many feared. He predicted that headgear would not, either.
"I'd challenge any of these doctors who feel this has no value to run into the goal post without a Full90 and with it, then tell me, if they were forced to do it a third time, whether or not they would wear it," said Dorrance, whose team is also sponsored by Full90.
Several players, including Joy Fawcett of the United States women's national team, who endorses Full90, discounted the so-called the Superman effect, saying the headgear did not make players dangerously aggressive.
"It's like a flag that reminds you not to go up for stupid plays," said Jill Conaboy, a defender at Downingtown West High in suburban Philadelphia, who wore headgear last weekend as her team won the Pennsylvania Class AAA state championship.
Kathy Conaboy, Jill's mother, said she held no illusion that her daughter, who has suffered two concussions, would never be hurt again while wearing headgear. What she hopes, she said, is that a blow that might have caused a third concussion will result in only a bruise.
"A seat belt is not going to save a life in a 90-mile-per-hour crash into a wall," Kathy Conaboy said. "A 30-mile-per-hour crash, a fender bender, it helps. I'm looking at this as a seat belt."
Santa Clara player Bonnie Bowman wears protective headgear during a game. Her team plays in the N.C.A.A. quarterfinals on Saturday.
North Carolina's Elizabeth Guess, right, and Santa Clara's Micaela Esquivel tried to head the ball in an N.C.A.A. playoff game Nov. 20.
Kevin Rivoli for The New York Times
Patrick Fisher, product manager for Full90, modeling the headgear that the company sells to soccer players. The device weighs less than 2 ounces.
With or without, why run into a goal post?
I actually had a parent give me the, "If it saves just one child..." argument.
Doctor: "Don't do that!"
What a great way to treat a symptom and not solve a problem. It's obvious to me that a small child should not deliberately hit themselves in the head with a ball. If the smaller age-groups would just not allow headers, this would not be a problem. And if anybody produces medical proof that nobody should header a soccer ball, just outlaw the move.
I played for ten years and refereed for ten years - never saw a player run into the goalpost, not even once. No doubt it happens, but often enough to require headgear?
I thought the whole point of soccer was to get the little ones to smash their brains to mush with the ball so they'd grow up to be good little commies like the countries where soccer comes from.
Headgear will defeat that whole object.
This will never stand.
Seriously, the headgear looks more like a padded headband. I wonder just how effective that it would be. Many serious concussions are really caused by the whipping action to the cervical vertibrae of the neck. A little padding on the noggin isn't going to prevent that. This looks like more of a girls' fashion statement than a serious piece of athletic equipment.
The goal-keeper is most at risk for running into a post, or getting kicked in the head. I've seen both. I support any keeper who wants to protect his/her head.
Our daughter plays and we worry about her as she gets older and the game gets more physical. We would never allow her to play goal--too dangerous. Outside of goal, the main risk is ACL injury. In addition to high-speed headers, there are plenty of elbows to the head as well as the dreaded head-to-head collision. Head-gear? By all means.
The player most likely to run into the goal is the keeper. My daughter is an aggressive keeper, and did bang her head on the post once. She was diving and slid into the post. She suffered a severe concussion last year from a kick to the head while smothering a ball. She will wear headgear this week when the the high school season begins to minimize the risk of another concussion. Some protection is better than no protection.
I agree, though, that headgear should not be mandatory. Each parent should be free to choose for his/her own child. I am glad that headgear is available, and we will test it out and decide for ourselves.
Me thinks Ryans getting a fine little cut of the gazillion to be made from such mandates.......
I've coached youth soccer. If Mr. Schilperoort's association has had head injuries to u-8 players, then he has more worries than just helmets.
At that level players should be honing basic skills and learning to play safely and fairly, not causing blows to the head. Now, I'm well aware that at that age most soccer is just a scrum around the ball and accidents happen, but proper coaching is key to that.
IMHO, I think that they're alluding to a collision with an opponent resulting in a fall near the goal post. If it can just save one header, etc.
If you think that the Full90 or other headgear is seen as a "fashion statement", then you obviously don't have a teenage girl!
My daughter has agreed to wear one this season after a nasty concussion last year. She's not thrilled about it, but has accepted it.
It's soccer, who cares.
i agree. but the people who run kid's soccer, especially the competitive travel teams, are not reasonable individuals.
i had to assert myself to get a coach to stop games immediately when there was lightning. the parents had voted, and the coach went along with it, to keep the game going, because the lightning "wasn't close yet". the majority of parents of kids on the team thought it was reasonable to have the kids (little girls!) continue playing until the lighning got close!
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