Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Heading the ball should not be a matter of life and death

Posted on 7 February 2020 by Becky Thompson


Kids under-12 should be restricted from heading the ball. Photo credit: PBS

Jack Charlton’s son may disagree, but heading the ball should be restricted for players under the age of 12. 

Charlton has been suffering from memory loss for several years now, and he is just one of several previous players to be diagnosed with dementia. 

His son, John, has spoken out in an interview with the Times about the disease saying: “Restricting heading is premature as I don’t think they have got the evidence to show that heading the ball is the cause. 

“I know lots of people who headed the ball who have these kinds of problems and lots of people who have not headed it who have the same problems.

“There’s a woman who is six years younger than my dad who has never headed the ball in her life but has dementia. 

“Dawn Astle has every right to campaign because that is what she firmly believes, but I am just not convinced.”

John Charlton’s comments follow the announcement that the FA is set to introduce new coaching guidelines, restricting the amount of heading for all under-18 players in training. 

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The move comes off the back of the Scottish FA announcing a ban of under-12s heading the ball in training last month. 

These new guidelines have not yet been finalised, and will not ban heading entirely. 

Jeff Astle died from dementia at just 59 years old, and an inquiry following his death revealed he died of an “industrial disease” caused by heading the ball. 

His daughter, Dawn, has been campaigning since his death in 2002 to limit heading in football. 

Studies over the years have shown that heading the ball can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition with serious long-term effects.

As recently as October, a new study was released highlighting the links between playing professional football and dementia. 

The United States was first to limit heading, banning players under the age of 11 from heading the ball during matches. 

Even with research, and countries such as Scotland and the United States imposing restrictions, the topic is still heavily debated in the football community. 

Many people, like John Charlton, believe that limiting heading in youth football could end up denying a young player a career as a professional footballer. 

However, there is no case to say that just because someone did not head the ball before they turned 12, that they will not become a professional footballer. 

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Before the age of 11, children’s brains are in the most critical stages of their development according to LearningRX

The long-term impacts of heading the ball as a kid could have serious effects on a players lifelong health. 

Does the importance of heading the ball outweigh the importance of a healthy life?

Too often we seem to get caught up in these life or death situations – at what point do we take a step back and remember that it is just a game?

Removing heading from the game for under-12s may even improve technique, allowing kids to learn how to control the ball out of the air with their feet, thighs, chest and other body parts.

Arsenal women star player Vivianne Miedema doesn’t practice headers in training, yet scores with her head frequently in matches. 

Abby Wambach credited her heading talent to playing basketball as a kid, which allowed her to learn how to time her jump. 

There is nothing to suggest that removing heading from the game for under-12s will change the competitive level of the game that we have now. 

The FA’s restrictions should be strong and more countries should follow suit to protect the safety of all players.

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