Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Good or Bad News: British FA’s introduce Ban on heading For Kids

Today, it was announced that the Football Association (FA) from each of Scotland, Northern Ireland and England have introduced a ban on heading the ball for children under 12 years old. What does this do for kids and Football going forward?

Heading Balls: The Summary

The main parts of the new ban on heading from the FA is as follows:

  • Heading guidance in training for all age groups between under-six and under-18
  • No heading in training in the foundation phase (primary school children)
  • Graduated approach to heading training for children in the development phase between under-12 to under-16
  • Required ball sizes for training and matches for each age group
  • No changes to heading in matches, taking into consideration the limited number of headers in youth games

The Background

Footballers such as Jeff Astle have developed severe brain issues that are directly related to heading the ball. There are many other articles that have been posted that highlight the dangers of heading the ball from a very young age.

Even in American Football, the dangers of brain injuries is highlighted by the incidence of CTE in players – this is in excess of those dangers caused by football, of course.

Many doctors are worried that allowing children to head the ball from a very young age, specifically that this can cause both long lasting damage and developmental problems in later life.

The Scottish FA have been looking at introducing a ban on heading for some time, and have now published official guidance – alongside the English and Northern Irish associations.

Not Before Time?

As a Scotsman, I have a vested interest in this. I played football from when I was around 5 years old up until my early forties when my body decided it had taken quite enough punishment!

Back in my day, the attitude to sport was a lot different, especially from the Scottish FA downwards. They just weren’t concerned with health.

For me – playing as a right winger, my remit was to avoid getting kicked as much as possible, whilst simultaneously trying to ‘nutmeg’ the opposing left back. Their job was to ensure that I was ‘battered’ – on the basis that, no matter how good I was, it was hard to play football whilst being 3 feet off the ground!

At that time, in the West of Scotland, we played with a mitre mould master on red blaise pitches (The nostalgia / The burns on your legs if you fell / The “joy” of picking the gravel out of cuts).

Ban on heading - Mitre Mould Master Football
Mitre Mould Master Football

The upshot of this is that you learned quickly that it didn’t matter how hard you got hit, you learned to land on your feet!

If you were unlucky enough to play centre forward or centre back, on the other hand, your remit was very different. Aside from the usual cry of “gerrintaeum” from the sidelines (usually from your Dad / someone else’s Dad), you were expected to have neck muscles that could simultaneously stand the impact of a large wooden object as well as the impact of what ever leather ball we’d manage to find for the “match”.

Things have changed since then, there’s more focus on developing skills – though we’ve not seen massive evidence of this in the national team.

In my opinion, modern Scottish football has had an unhealthy relationship with heading the ball – I remember one match where I remarked that the ball didn’t spend much time at players’ feet, to which my friend commented “it doesn’t spend much time on the ground at this level, either!” The lower levels are much more about “blood and snotters” than it is about the modern game on the ground!

Anyone who has been to a Scottish Third Division play off decider (and I’ve been to a few) between Cowdenbeath and Cove Rangers will tell you that it’s not so much fitba as a legalised fight where occasionally some football breaks out!

The Scottish FA has tried (and failed in my view) to fix this at the grass roots level.

Though I haven’t seen the evidence, I’m not surprised that there is some correlation between heading the ball at a young age and the onset of dementia, and I do believe that encouraging kids to develop some sort of “silks” is the way to go in terms of teaching them the fundamentals. The way I see it, eventually it’ll help the country produce more technical and better equipped footballers.

One can only hope that the ban on heading can make a difference!

The Challenge for a ban on heading

The challenge for us as adults and football fanatics is to try to teach kids to play football the “right way”. We played morning, noon and night as kids – the onset of easy entertainment such as Netflix / Xbox / Playstation / iPads makes it easier to kids to give up easy. For me, if you want to be good at something, you absolutely must practice and work hard to achieve this – it’s too easy to take the easy way out.

The heading ban will undoubtedly help this focus on ball skills, and playing football the right way.

But — here’s the rub — modern coaching is also participating in making it easy to give up!

Non-competitive matches for kids is one thing, but even when we were ten years old, we took pride in playing the local team, and absolutely dismantling them bit by bit.

Here’s my message to the administrative guys at the FA and SFA:

Please, don’t take that away too: keep it fun, give them a chance to have bragging rights!

It’s the essence of the game — you can’t take that way, right?

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