Football players suffer the highest concussion rates among athletes. But players of the “other football,” soccer, also experience a notable number of concussions. It’s a sport where most players don’t wear protective headgear. But that’s changing as parents look for ways to keep kids safe.
Risk Beyond the Gridiron
Nine-year old Jackson Kittinger loves soccer.
“Because you get to run a lot and it helps you improve on your team work,” said Jackson.
He plays with the Homewood Soccer Club. His mother, Anna Kittinger, remembers a weekend tournament last October.
“They had four games and during the games he played almost every minute of every game,” said Anna.
Jackson remembers falling down a lot, but he didn’t experience any hard hits. But Anna knew something was up on Monday morning.
“He usually does not walk down the stairs. He bounds down the stairs, kind of this running jump,” said Anna. “When he got to the bottom of the stairs. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said his head really hurt.”
Jackson was concerned.
“My head had never hurt when I went down the stairs before,” said Jackson.
So Anna told him to go back to bed and rest. As the week went on he developed more problems. Jackson couldn’t remember conversations. Words blurred together when he read. He had trouble balancing. Doctors diagnosed Jackson with a concussion. He didn’t play soccer for six weeks.
Now that Jackson had suffered a concussion, Anna Kittinger knew he was at a greater risk of another and wanted to protect him. She looked online and which led to a padded helmet. It looks like a blocky, turtle shell you wear on your head. Jackson’s helmet is black with orange stripes.
“It helps you not get a concussion because when the ball hits your head it absorbs some of the impact,” said Jackson.
Headgear Comes to Soccer
Headgear like this has crept into soccer as awareness of the dangers of concussions increases. Some professional players wear them. In 2013 schools in Princeton, New Jersey, mandated players wear headgear.
C.J. Abraham created the ForceField Protective Headband. He says his device, which looks like any ordinary headband, can dissipate much of the impact force to the head. He’s careful to say it doesn’t eliminate concussions. He says it just reduces the risk of severe brain injuries. Abraham says hears from parents who notice a difference.
“One observed his son coming head-to-head in contact with another player and they both got up and walked away,” said Abraham. “He couldn’t believe what happened.”
The science though is not so definitive.
“There’s no well controlled study of which I’m aware that definitely shows any type of headgear in soccer prevents concussions,” said Dr. Mathew Lively, Medical Director for Intercollegiate Athletics at West Virginia University.
He says this headgear does seem to reduce impact forces. But to then say that’ll affect rates of brain injuries is an assumption. The proof’s not there. Plus Lively says we know concussions occur in ways other than a direct blow to the head. There’s also the question of headgear making kids play more aggressively because they feel more confident.
“There’s so many different ways this could go that could be more detrimental in the long run if you don’t use them properly or know exactly what they can or cannot do,” said Lively.
Organizations such as the U.S. Soccer Federation and FIFA allow players to wear head protection but don’t make recommendations one way or another. Lively says there’s no physical harm from wearing the headgear. The question is how much stock are parents and players putting into them.
A Worthwhile Risk
Anna Kittinger says she understands her son Jackson could still get a concussion despite the extra protection. But it’s a risk she’s comfortable with.
“The reward of playing soccer for him is greater than the off chance that the concussion is going to happen,” said Anna. “We just feel like we have to be smart about it and mitigate that risk however we can.”
For them they mitigate it with a black, padded helmet with orange stripes.