Kids, Soccer & Safety
Soccer is the most popular team sport in the world. Millions of people play the game and over a billion watch it on TV. In fact during the 2012 Summer Olympics, soccer was one of the most-watched (and the most-Tweeted about) sports of the games. Kids here in Mississippi are no exception when it comes to their interest in soccer. The Mississippi Soccer Association (MSA) represents over 22,000 youth soccer players, 3,000 coaches and 1,000 referees throughout the state. The MSA consists of various leagues that register youth players (boys and girls) from ages of 4 through 19 and adult players 20 and older.
Keeping Kids Safe
With so many players on the soccer fields these days, parents want to know what they can do to help keep their kids safe and reduce serious injuries. Well-Being spoke with Dolph Woodall, Director of the UMMC Sports Physical Therapy Residency Program and Christopher Boston, M.D., Family Medicine physician and Assistant professor in the UMMC Department of Family Medicine, about soccer injuries and some precautions that players, parents and coaches can take to make the game as safe as possible.
According to Woodall, some of the most common injuries incurred while playing soccer, especially for younger players, are sprained ankles, and bumps and bruises, with very few fractures.
“As players get older and bigger, they tend to get more ACL injuries, shin splints, stress fractures, hamstring pulls, groin pulls and strained calf muscles,” notes Woodall.
Soccer head injuries can come from player-to-player contact, player-to-ground contact, player-to-goalpost contact and player-to-ball contact. But, the practice of heading the ball is the most common cause of concussions in high school soccer players, nearly 40%, according to a 2008 article in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
“Head and neck injuries are more likely to happen when the player doesn’t know how to execute a head ball correctly,” adds Dr. Boston. “Also, when players don’t keep their elbows down when they are heading the ball, they risk hitting an opposing player in the head.”
Following some common sense tips can make playing the world’s favorite team sport much safer.
Safety Gear Guidelines
Soccer doesn’t require a lot of gear for each player other than shin guards and cleats, but it’s a good idea to give some thought to all of these important pieces of equipment before you play:
Soccer cleats. Choose a pair of shoes with molded cleats or ribbed soles. Shoes with screw-in cleats may carry a higher risk of injury, so only use them when you need extra traction, such as on a wet field or a field with tall grass. Make sure your cleats fit properly and are laced up tightly each time you play.
Shin guards. If soccer players get lower leg injuries, it’s usually because they weren’t protected with adequate shin guards. A good shin guard will mold to the shin, end just below the knee, and fit snugly around the anklebone. Take your soccer socks and cleats with you when you buy shin guards to be sure that they’ll fit properly.
Soccer socks. These are meant to hold shin guards securely in place and should be worn anytime you practice or play.
Other gear. Mouthguards are a good way to protect your teeth, lips, cheeks, and tongue, and jaw fractures. Mouthguards are recommended for all soccer players. Goalies will want to wear long-sleeved shirts and specialized goalie gloves to protect their hands while stopping shots.
According to Boston, there is no evidence to support the use of headgear for the prevention of concussions.
An Ounce of Prevention…
Always warm up and stretch before playing. Do some jumping jacks or run in place for a few minutes to get the blood flowing, and then slowly and gently stretch, paying particular attention to your ankles, calves, knees, and hamstrings. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds before moving on to the next one.
Keep your head up and be aware of your teammates and opposing players at all times. Collisions are more likely if you go charging blindly down the field and don’t pay attention to other players.
Learn and use proper techniques, particularly when it comes to heading the ball and be aware of where other players are around you. If you don’t know where other players are, you run the risk of head-to-head collisions if two of you jump to head a ball. Also, protect your tongue – keep your mouth closed and your tongue away from your teeth while heading a ball.
Soccer balls kicked by highly skilled players can travel over 100 km/hour.
In Case of Injury…
If you get a cramp or feel pain while playing, ask to come out of the game, and don’t start playing again until the pain goes away. Playing through pain might seem like a brave thing to do, but it can increase the severity of an injury and possibly keep you on the sidelines for longer stretches of time.
If you have a blow to the head from colliding with another player, hitting the ground, the goalpost, or hitting the ball, make sure to let your coach know, especially if you feel dizzy or are having trouble focusing. Head injuries can be serious and players who might have suffered a concussion should come out of a game or practice immediately and not go back in until have been checked out by a coach or parent, and if indications of a concussion are present, by a physician.
Both Woodall and Boston agree that education on the symptoms of concussion is crucial. It’s up to coaches, trainers, parents, and players to be alert to the first sign that a player has suffered a head injury so they can be brought out of the game.
Know the Proper Form for Soccer Headers
After the close of the 2012 Summer Olympics, kids all over America and around the world have vivid images of champion soccer players, making winning goals with deftly delivered head balls! It makes for exciting TV action, but it might not be the best thing for your child to try to emulate, without the proper training.
The question of whether repeated head balls in soccer have a long-term impact on the brain or cognitive function is a raging debate among experts with no clear answer one way or another, but one thing that is clear, is that if performed appropriately, the head ball has less potential for long-term damage.
Take a moment to learn the basics of proper form so you can double-check what you, your child and your child’s coach are doing. Here are a few dos and don’ts to look for:
Do strike the ball with the head. Don’t allow the ball to hit you in the head. The player should actively strike the ball with the head rather than allowing the ball to hit them in the head. A player has to make heading the ball, a deliberate, well-executed effort, not a passive reaction.
Do keep your eyes open and locked on the ball. Don’t close your eyes when heading a soccer ball. The most common mistake that young players make is closing their eyes. Instead, keep the eyes open and locked on the part of the ball you want to head.
Do use the whole body to generate your power. Don’t try to use your neck muscles. In a traditional header, the power comes from the upper body not the neck muscles. The back should be arched in preparation for the header and the torso thrust forward to contact the ball. The chin should be tucked toward the chest to stabilize the neck.
Do use a ball that is age-appropriate. Don’t use a wet ball for practice. When practicing headers, always make sure the ball is the right size ball for the player’s age and not a ball that is too large and heavy. Also, as a soccer ball gets wet, the weight increases by 20% or more, so for practice, choose a dry ball.
Talk to your child’s coaches about their policies on heading. Most coaches agree there should be “no heading” rules for younger players. Talk to your child about the dangers of heading the ball improperly, especially when they are not under supervision of an adult.