Kim Eaves had the kids at Geggie Elementary in Eureka running through their paces on a recent afternoon. Literally.
The 11 children, ages 6 to 11, were zigzagging this way and that, dribbling soccer balls between their feet. When she yelled the words cheetah, turtle or control, they'd either speed up, slow down or come to a complete stop, standing still as statues with a foot atop their soccer balls.
"It's important to know how to change directions and speed," said Eaves, a coach with Soccer Shots.
Earlier, she told them they were only allowed to pick up the ball when she gave them permission. "Heading" the ball was never mentioned.
Soccer Shots is a franchise that teaches more than 45,000 children in 30 states the fundamentals of soccer. For the past two years, its coaches have been prohibited from teaching children ages 2 to 8 how to hit a flying ball with their head. Founders of the group eliminated heading from their curriculum after learning that concussions diagnosed in children had increased by 58 percent between 2001 and 2010 and that heading in soccer can cause those concussions. Now they're asking other soccer clinics and leagues for children under age 8 to follow suit.
"A couple of statistics really jumped out, especially how girls soccer had the second highest rate of concussion, second only to football," said Justin Bredeman, vice president of franchisee recruitment at Soccer Shots. "Plus, there's a lot more to the sport than heading, so we made the intentional decision to pull it out of our curriculum. It seemed like common sense to do. We decided to focus on other techniques."
A lot of soccer coaches, some parents and even medical experts, however, are skeptical that the ban will reduce concussions. And they're certain that it won't eliminate trauma to the brains of soccer players.
For one thing, a direct impact to the head isn't necessary to sustain a concussion. A hard jerk of the neck during a collision or a fall that slams the brain against the skull can cause a concussion.
What's more, a growing body of evidence indicates that brain damage might occur with a series of soft impacts to the head rather than a hard blow.
Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, recently asked 38 amateur soccer players, who were an average of 31 years old and had played the sport since childhood, to recall the number of times they headed the ball during the past year. They then compared their brain images and found those who headed the ball the most showed brain injury similar to a concussion. Further analysis found that players showed significant brain injury when they headed the ball more than 1,000 to 1,500 times a year, which amounts to only a few times a day for an avid player.
Nevertheless, Tony Glavin, a retired professional soccer player and owner of Tony Glavin Soccer Club, said he's never had a concussion despite 50 years of heading soccer balls, even during his childhood.
"As a youth coach for 20 plus years, there have been off and on talks about heading," said Glavin. "I haven't seen anything conclusive that it actually causes concussions or problems."
He acknowledges that if a ball is coming fast at his head, he may avoid it. He encourages young children to do the same. But typically, he said, when a small child kicks a ball, it's not moving faster than what their peers can handle.
"Now if you had an adult playing with kids, that's different," he says.
Jon Weidenbenner of Eureka was surprised to hear that Soccer Shots bans heading. His son takes part in the clinics at Geggie Elementary.
"I don't see a problem" with heading the ball, he said. "We all survived childhood (heading) the ball. We rode our bikes without helmets. We played, we ran, we were kids. That's what kids do. I don't think (banning) it is a good idea. Let them play the game. I understand the reason for it but don't necessarily agree with it."
Weidenbenner played football as a kid.
"Tackle football," he stressed.
'IT'S PART OF THE GAME'
Many coaches maintain that the number of kids who have an opportunity to head a ball at a young age is slim because they can't kick the ball high enough off the ground.
"Not that it doesn't happen; the goalie can punt it," said Jerry Beckerle, executive director of Midwest Soccer Academy and director of the city of St. Louis' Catholic Youth soccer league. "But even if they did hit it, it's not coming at a high enough velocity to hurt anything. We practice kicking all the time. We go over shooting and passing constantly. You don't do that with heading. It's part of the game but the majority is still kicking and passing."
Beckerle doesn't think banning the practice is a big deal for most kids under age 9. But beyond that, players might need the skill, he said.
"Some kids eat, drink and breathe soccer, and as you graduate up to 11- or 12-year-old teams, you definitely need it," says Beckerle. "Though you do have some kids who will avoid it all together. They just do."
The proper way to head a ball, most players agree, is with the forehead and not the top or sides of the head.
Glavin rattles off a complicated list of instructions that including keeping the eyes on the ball, the mouth closed and engaging the neck and back muscles while propelling the upper body forward.
With younger children, he says, he takes some air out of the ball to make it soft.
"I've headed the ball thousands of times and never had a concussion," he said. "I have been hit in back of the head and boy, oh boy, I felt it. But it was coming hard and fast and jolted me. If it hits you in the wrong place and jolts you, yeah it can concuss you."
Dr. Mark Halstead, an orthopedic surgeon at Washington University Orthopedics in Chesterfield and an expert on concussions, applauds the effort by Soccer Shots. Most children don't have the ability to safely head a ball until about age 9 or 10, because they lack neck strength and coordination, he said. But banning heading won't eliminate concussions for them. Nor would it for older players, he said.
"It’s usually unintentional headers where the player didn’t see the ball coming or two players go up for a header and hit their heads together," he said. "Or they come from getting punched by the goalie as he’s trying to punch it out of the end zone. I had one kid get a concussion from the goal post when he was putting it away after a game and it hit him on the head."