CINCINNATI — Heather Mitts never worried about concussions when she played soccer at St. Ursula High School.
“Concussions were very rare and never talked about,” said Mitts, a three-time Olympic soccer gold medalist with the U.S. Women's National Team. “It wasn’t until I attended the University of Florida where we required to wear a mouth guard every day that I first heard of concussions.”
Mitts said she suffered three concussions at the very end of her career and didn’t want to risk her long-term health.
Today, her message to young soccer players is simple and echoes that of experts studying brain injuries: Know that concussions in soccer are a part of the contact sport, but proper heading technique can help minimize the risk.
“It takes practice and timing to get it right,” said Mitts, a 1996 St. Ursula graduate. “You have to be confident when going up for a header or you risk getting hurt. It’s a catch-22.”
Technique Could Be the Key
Fifteen years ago, anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, injuries were a main youth sports concern, particularly for female athletes.
“Concussion is on about a 100-fold greater trajectory as far as magnitude and public opinion on it,” said Dr. Gregory Myer, director of research for the Division of Sports Medicine and the Director of the Human Performance Lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
That significance is not lost on area high school and club soccer coaches.
Walnut Hills girls’ soccer coach Kevin Spraul is also the director of coaching at Cincinnati West Soccer Club. The club has an estimated 1,300 players on 80 teams ranging from ages 6-19.
There are new safety rules and regulations in place for club soccer regarding headers, Spraul said.
“We will be switching to Nerf balls in order to properly train our players on how to properly head the ball as well as how to protect themselves from others,” Spraul said.
Although there is discussion about headers at the high school level, the National Federation of State High School Associations Soccer Rules Committee has no plans to change the rules.
Spraul said coaches have adjusted practice routines in order to keep players safe.
University of Cincinnati neurology professor Dr. Joseph Clark said in one photo study, 95 percent of girls’ soccer players had their eyes closed while heading the ball.
The thinking, Dr. Clark said, is heading the ball is not necessarily the problem in a normal situation, but it’s the other things around the head. (A ball to the back of a head from a direct kick is different).
It may be a matter of a different coaching technique with research into what he terms “eye discipline” – quantifying how well a person keeps their eyes opened and engaged on the ball to keep their brain engaged.
“If their eyes are closed, they aren’t doing it very well,” Dr. Clark said.
Adjustments Being Made
High school teams have adjusted practice routines in an effort to reduce concussions.
During the week Walnut Hills played Loveland last fall, the Eagles deflated the balls in order to prepare for the Tigers’ air game.
“That way we aren’t doing 100 headers” in practice, Spraul said.
Badin High School coach Todd Berkely, the father of Ohio Ms. Soccer Malia Berkeley (Florida State signee), says strength and conditioning in the weight room has emerged as an important part of the game – an important aspect of overall physical well being to minimize injury.
Todd Berkely says he’s seen some “nasty concussions” in club and high school.
“I think the real concern is when you have head-to-head contact and they land on the turf,” Berkely said.
But, Berkely said perspective is also needed and soccer’s merits stand on its own.
“The sport is a great sport no matter how you slice it,” he said.
Anderson junior Catherine Upchurch has a unique perspective. The goalkeeper said she suffered a serious concussion on the field during a game her sophomore season and a minor concussion during practice her junior season.
She worked with Dr. Clark and the baseline data regarding her abilities helped her to improve.
“I firmly believe that the brain training pre-injury helps the brain get better faster,” Dr. Clark said. “It is similar to weight training to be stronger to play sports but with the brain training the brain is trained too and can heal faster – we think.”