Headers may not be for pre-teens
The FAS and football academies here take steps to protect young children from any potential effect of regular heading exercises
Dele Alli's double header to help Tottenham beat Chelsea 2-0 in the English Premiership last week must have inspired football-loving children around the world to master the art.
But a study by the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom last October yielded results that were not just mind-boggling, but also brain-numbing.
They found memory performance was reduced by between 41 per cent and 67 per cent in the 24 hours after players headed a football 20 times, off the pace and power of a corner kick.
While memory function returned to normal 24 hours later, and the research cannot be used to make specific recommendations about children, there is anecdotal evidence of former players suffering from serious brain conditions.
At least three of the surviving seven outfield players - Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson - from England's 1966 World Cup-winning team are suffering from Alzheimer's or significant memory loss.
This has prompted England's Professional Footballers' Association to call for the ban of heading for children under 10, taking the cue from their American counterparts who had done so earlier, reported British daily The Telegraph.
In Singapore, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has adopted a cautious approach in its grassroots programme which includes Under-8 and Under-10 categories.
Mr Basir Ellaya Kutty, FAS' head of coach education and junior centres of excellence, told The New Paper: "The safety of our footballers is of the utmost importance to the FAS.
"This is reflected in our various practices, including training methodologies."
Under the FAS' Youth Development Plan, children play small-sided games that focus on passing and dribbling. Players move on to full 11-a-side games only at the age of 13.
Mr Bashir said the rules of the small-sided games are modified to minimise long balls.
"For example, goalkeepers are required to pass the ball short to their teammates, and for players up to the age of nine, there are kick-ins rather than throw-ins," he said.
"Training sessions for our children exclude the possible danger arising from heading high or long balls."
Parents here are taking a measured approach when told about these latest development.
Former national captain, Razali Saad, whose son is 18, felt heading should be banned only if the findings are conclusive.
He said: "When I was a kid, the ball was of a different size, the material was different and it was heavier.
"Of course, it did hurt, especially if you don't have the right technique.
"But the more we trained, the better we got and it didn't hurt anymore.
"We headed the ball when necessary and I have never heard of any case of brain damage among local footballers."
He said his son started playing football from a young age and he had no problems with letting him head the ball when he needed to.
Engineer Cheong Chee Kong, 40, who has a six-year-old son, Aden, added: "I may still let him head the ball if he is just playing once in a while.
"If it is proven that it's causing damage to adults, it's logical to think that it will do more damage to a child's brain when the skull is still developing."
Local football academies The New Paper spoke to have also taken precautionary measures to prevent injuries that may arise from headers. (See report at right.)
But world football governing body Fifa is unlikely to impose a blanket ban worldwide.
In response to TNP's queries, its spokesman said: "For more than 15 years, Fifa's Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-Marc) has been actively following the issue of head and brain injuries, publishing scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals in collaboration with International Sports Federations and research groups.
"To our very best knowledge, there is currently no true evidence of the negative effect of heading or other sub-concussive blows."
The spokesman added that results from studies on active and former professional football players in relation to brain function are inconclusive.
Academies play it safe with heading
The 2Touch Soccer School and the F-17 Academy in Singapore introduce heading as part of their training only from the ages of 10 and 12, respectively.
Shamir Amanullah, principal of the F-17 Academy, said: "Heading is not part of our curriculum at all for the age groups in question (Under-4, U-6, U-8, U-10).
"For these age groups, F-17 focuses on teaching ball control, coordination and speed, in addition to developing character in our players."
He said they found that heading was not yet an essential part of the game for these age groups, as they were generally unable to kick the ball high enough.
"In all our competitive matches, goalkeepers are not allowed to punt the ball, meaning F-17 players open the game from the back and mostly on the ground.
"At the end of the day, we were kids once too, and we understand heading can be painful for young children."
While there haven't been any conclusive studies, Khairul Asyraf, founder of the 2Touch Group said they are playing it safe.
He said: "For those aged 10 and above, we introduce heading exercises with the players throwing the ball and heading it themselves."
He added that for ages seven to nine, they go through exercises where they will jump to head a stationary ball held by the coach.
Mr Khairul added: "It is just to understand the feel of the forehead touching the ball. There is also more emphasis on the jump rather than the header."
What US Soccer is doing
As part of the resolution in a concussion lawsuit, US Soccer launched an initiative to focus on prevention and education, effective from Jan 1, 2016. These include:
- Children aged 10 or younger cannot be taught the skill of heading;
- They also cannot intentionally head the ball in a competitive game;
- An indirect free-kick will be awarded to the opponents if a player aged 10 or younger deliberately heads the ball on the field;
- Children aged 11 and 12 can receive heading instruction in training, but training is limited to 30 minutes per week. They can head the ball in competitions;
- Education and awareness about concussions;
- Return-to-play protocols after suspected concussions for youth players; and
- Changes to substitution rules in-play, so players can be evaluated for a concussion without fear of penalty.