In a sport where the use of one’s hands is forbidden in contact with the object of the game (i.e. the football itself) the use of other body parts becomes more important.
Obviously, the younger you start practicing heading the ball, the more proficient a prospective competitive player will be at that skill.
In the past, from the time serious players reached a remotely competitive level, that is from the ages of seven or eight, practicing heading the ball during training, particularly for players such as centre-halves and centre-forwards is encouraged.
When competitive players reach their teens, particularly in these two aforementioned field positions, training by heading several dozen of these footballs per week has been seen as even more necessary.
Age-restrictions on the amount of heading of footballs done by Under-18s in training is set to be introduced by the English Football Association with their Scottish counterparts having made recent plans for a total ban on Under-12s heading footballs.
In the hyper litigious society that is the United States, the governing body of football there, US Soccer banned heading the football for children aged 10 years and under back in 2015 and limited heading in training for children between the ages of 11 and 13.
Former Leicester City centre-half Steve Walsh has also spent time coaching Under-18s and he told Sky Sports this week that he is glad to see guidelines brought in around heading the football.
Walsh told the television channel that he is concerned about the potential damage he might have suffered during his career:
“In training, after every session, I was made to head 50 footballs from 70 yards away and you could imagine the effect this had on my brain. Many times I headed a ball and I didn’t know what day it was (after heading the ball).
“So it is a little bit worrying. I’m 55 now and I think that I headed that many footballs, have I got any damage done (to my brain)?
“I’ve not had a brain scan I don’t think, I can’t remember but it’s something that there’s going to be changes in. I think there’s got to be more research done to really diagnose what we need to do about it because it’s going to be a bit of a problem because heading a football in football is so important.
“I think it’s constant heading of a ball and real training methods that need to change. I can’t see it in a match changing. Every week you’re heading a ball (during a match) but not every day like in training.”
Former Blackburn Rovers player Tony Parkes (1970-1982) who was also caretaker manager of the club seven separate times, was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Tony’s daughter Natalie told Sky Sports News this week that she feels that heading the ball is responsible:
“He remembers some names like Alan Shearer and Kenny Dalglish but he has no idea how important he was to the history of Blackburn.
“In my mind, there’s a football link. You can’t played football from the time of being a child until you retire at 65, heading those old heavy leather balls in the rain, and it not to have any affect on your brain.”
There is precedent. When Jeff Astle – a player famed for his heading abilities – died back in 2002, the coroner recorded his death as “a death by industrial disease”. The coroner found that heading the old style heavier balls caused trauma leading to dementia and eventually his death.
Recent research by Glasgow University has found that professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer brain disease than the average person.
One of the most prodigious and dramatic sights in football is that of a player running through bodies, leaping and powering a header into the back of the net. Will players’ ability to perform such a feat be adversely affected by huge reductions in the amount of heading practiced in training? Certainly.
While modern footballs are no doubt lighter and absorb less rain than the older, heavier models from 30+ years ago, the issue of brain trauma within football is one which certainly needs more looking into however.