UEFA has issued practical heading guidelines for young footballers which aim to help protect their health and ensure their safety both in training sessions and match play.
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The guidelines were approved this week by the UEFA Executive Committee and fulfil a crucial need for a consensus document on heading guidance in youth football.
Although the key findings of research commissioned by UEFA show that youth players have low exposure to headers, the guidelines have been drawn up amid ongoing debate about whether heading a football could potentially alter players’ brain structures and function.
As a baseline document for national football associations, coaches and parents, the guidelines focus on managing heading during training and match play in the youth game, as well as on what to consider for heading drills for youth players.
Recommendations and advice are given on specific aspects such as ball size and pressure, the need for neck-strengthening exercises, and detection of potential concussion symptoms.
UEFA’s guidelines also aim to limit the header burden in youth football to a minimum which is deemed necessary for the promotion of the game. National associations may issue additional regulations, but should include the UEFA guidelines as a minimum.
Expert teamwork and independent research
The guidelines were compiled by an expert group bringing together UEFA Medical Committee members and external specialists. Reviews were also conducted by both the full UEFA Medical Committee and the UEFA Jira Panel, a group which comprises experienced technicians and coaching experts.
The findings of two independent research groups commissioned by UEFA in 2018 - the University of Saarland (Germany) and Hampden Sports Clinic and Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board (Scotland) – yielded crucial input for the guidelines.
UEFA Medical Committee chairman Tim Meyer:
“There has been considerable discussion in recent years around the issue of whether repeated heading during one's career can lead to long-term changes in the structure and function of the brain. However, to this date, no conclusive scientific evidence has been provided for this.”
“It was important for UEFA to collect data on the burden of heading in youth football, and it was our task to identify what can be safely derived from existing scientific evidence.”
Using the guidelines
UEFA acknowledges that scientific evidence at this moment does not allow for more detailed guidelines. However, from a preventative perspective, European football’s governing body feels that it is useful and worthwhile to give practical advice and minimum recommendations.
Tim Meyer - “It is important for UEFA to have developed these heading guidelines in order to give a minimum recommendation on how to appropriately introduce the practice of heading and aim to reduce the burden for youth players.”
“The establishment of such guidelines will hopefully support coaches, players, parents and others on how best to manage heading drills at a young age.”
As opinions on the issue of heading in youth football vary from one country to another, UEFA is also encouraging national associations to use the guidelines as a minimum basis and develop their specific elements according to national circumstances - such as age groups, competition organisation, and club/school infrastructure.
Background : Answering questions and gathering data
UEFA first published a call for research proposals in May 2017, in which potential researchers were asked to address two questions.
• Determining the burden of heading in youth football;
- addressing differences in the way headers are taught in football training;
- differences in the incidence and characteristics of football headers in matches and training, and in different age and gender categories.
The studies should take into consideration variations caused by countries’ different traditions and playing styles.
• Proposals were also invited to provide data to determine whether heading in youth football had any effect on players’ brain structure and function.
At the time, there was also a lack of data on the nature and extent of heading in youth football, raising a series of key questions:
• How often do young players head the ball in training and matches?
• What sort of heading do they do?
• Are there differences between countries, genders and age groups?
UEFA responded in 2018 by commissioning the two research bodies in Germany and Scotland to undertake in-depth analyses of the burden of heading in youth football across Europe.
Research study : University of Saarland (Germany)
The findings of this research project were published last month in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science In Sports.
The study analysed video footage taken from training sessions and matches of 480 different teams from eight European countries.
Data collected represents the first real-life assessment of the heading incidence during match play and training in a large-scale pan-European sample of young football players.
The study’s key findings;
• Youth players have low exposure to headers, especially during match conditions; the majority of players under the age of 12 do not head the ball at all during a match, or only once at the most.
• One of the findings suggests that the lowest number of headers per match was observed in Under-10 teams, followed by Under-16 female and Under-12 teams, whereas Under-16 male teams experienced the highest heading exposures in this sample;
• Considerable differences between countries were also apparent;
Research study : Hampden Sports Clinic and Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board (Scotland)
This research project looked to achieve two aims:
• Establish current protocols for heading and concussion management in youth football across multiple national associations;
• Determine current implementation of these protocols by youth football coaches across multiple national associations.
The study group shared two types of questionnaires with UEFA’s national associations:
• To assess whether any guidelines related to both the management of concussion and to heading in youth football already existed;
• Specific questions to coaches regarding exposure by age group and sex to heading in both training and matches (frequency and duration), size of balls and whether technique is taught.
Answers given in the questionnaires showed that:
• Four of the 55 UEFA member associations had guidelines for heading in youth players;
• Responses from coaches showed that the level of knowledge was variable and contained some notable specific gaps.
The Scottish study is in preparation for submission to a medical journal for publication.