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Focus on Children's Health

Doctors to Issue a Heads Up on Soccer Move

April 05, 1999|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Wylie Drummond, coach of the Hollywood-Wilshire-based Mighty Blue Bashers, it's a moment of triumph--and surprise--when one of his 8- and 9-year-old players "heads" a ball down the field during play.

For the all-girl Bashers, such a soccer coaching feat means practice--three or four minutes of "heading drills" a week, during which a girl will probably be bopped off the head 10 to 15 times by a ball tossed from about 10 feet away.

"You lob this thing like a powder puff at them," he said. "That really doesn't jolt them."

Not everyone agrees. In fact, the nation's leading group of pediatricians is set to warn parents and coaches that for children and teens, the repeated practice of "heading" a soccer ball could result in lasting brain injury. Meeting in Chicago next month, the American Academy of Pediatrics' sports medicine committee expects to prepare a statement on youth soccer safety that outlines existing research and, pending further studies, makes a case for restraint.

"We're putting out a word of caution," said Dr. Bernard Griesemer, who is drafting the statement for the committee's May meeting. "On repetitive heading of soccer balls in young athletes, the bottom line is probably 'less is better.' " Griesemer stressed that heading drills, in which a child's head is knocked repeatedly, are of greater concern to the pediatricians' group than is the occasional head-punt in the course of play.

Given the popularity of youth soccer leagues across the country, the doctors' expected warnings have set off a new wave of chattering across the nation's playing fields. Pushed by enthusiastic coaches and often prodded by gung-ho parents, more and more children are hurling themselves into competitive sports--and getting hurt doing it. From the sidelines, however, more protective parents are watching the athletic exploits of today's kids with furrowed brows. So are the doctors.

In the last two decades, doctors' warnings have sunk youth boxing, brought compulsory batting helmets to Little League baseball and outfitted pee-wee hockey players with mouth guards and eye protection. Now, as coaches roll their eyes and parents hold their breath, doctors are focusing on soccer--the sport so many baby boomers embraced for their children as a safe alternative to football.

What they have found is troubling, though far from conclusive.

At the coming meeting, pediatricians will be weighing the words they will use to guide parents and coaches in safe soccer play. Their concerns over heading drills has been prompted largely by a pair of studies that compared the mental functioning of large groups of adult soccer players to adults of similar age and circumstance who did not play soccer. One was conducted in Norway, the other in the United States, and all involved soccer players who had begun playing--and heading drills--at a very early age.

In the Norwegian study of 106 former and still-active professional soccer players, 81% were found to have impairment of their attention, concentration, memory and judgment that ranged from mild to severe. The more recent U.S. study compared 60 young adult soccer players with a smaller group of nonplayers found that attention and concentration deficits were significantly more common among those who "headed" the ball most often.

The studies do not prove that the practice of heading is to blame, and they don't establish how much drilling might be dangerous to the developing brains of children. But they have appeared at a time when neuroscientists are demonstrating that lasting brain injury can happen even when a victim does not lose consciousness or suffer a concussion, and that the brain--like any delicate tissue--can be harmed over time by small, repeated stresses.

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Against that backdrop, sports medicine specialists find the soccer studies alarming. And when it comes to the safety of children and the protection of their still-developing brains, the medical establishment is inclined to err on the side of caution. Hence, the movement within the American Academy of Pediatrics to put out the red flag on heading drills.

"Most people feel like you can never be faulted by being conservative because of what happens with cumulative stresses," said Dr. Steven Anderson, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatricians' committee on sports medicine and fitness. Head injury, he added, has become a hot topic among sports medicine specialists, and he acknowledged "no one has a good answer." But the public is looking to the medical establishment for specific common-sense guidelines unclouded by team loyalties or the stoicism of athletic traditionalists.

Anderson said the pediatricians' planned warning has drawn little debate within medical circles, and no opposition within the committee's seven pediatricians. For its part, one national soccer group, the American Youth Soccer Organization, says it discourages heading drills for young players, while acknowledging that it doesn't send down firm rules to coaches.

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