The updated heading guidance for youth training sessions

Posted on: February 28th, 2020 | by Laura Murdoch | No Comments

Young boy heading a football

Back in January this year, the Scottish FA announced that it would ban children from heading footballs in training sessions. At the time, the FA confirmed that it wouldn’t be making any changes to the sport as a whole but would carry out additional research around the topic. Earlier this week, they released new guidance about the practice of heading for all football players under the age of 18. The changes declared that no child in England, Scotland, and Ireland would be allowed to head the ball during their training sessions. So, what has the FA announced and what does it mean for youth football?

The updated guidance

On Monday 24th February, the English, Irish and Scottish FAs jointly announced that they were updating their heading guidance for under 6’s to under 18’s. This comes in association with the Irish and Scottish FAs. The updates give clubs, coaches and players new recommendations about the practice of heading in training sessions. There have been no changes to heading in matches as the FA understands that it occurs infrequently in youth games.

The FA was sure to remind everyone that the research has not determined that there is a definite link between heading the ball and dementia. Instead, the new guidelines are intended to reduce any potential risk by limiting the number of times a young player will be able to head the ball.

The update includes:

  • Heading guidance in training for all age groups between under-six and under-18
  • No heading in training during the foundation phase (primary school children)
  • A graduated approach for children in the development phase (under-12 to under-16)
  • Required ball sizes for training and matches for each age group

The new guidelines that the FA has released include detailed requirements for each age range as well as recommendations for the focus of training sessions. The full list can be found on the FA’s website but the table below shows the major changes concerning heading the ball.
Updated heading guidance

Why has it changed?

The updated guidelines were put in place following research into the link between dementia and football. In October 2019, the University of Glasgow published the results of the FA and PFA funded FIELD study. The study discovered that former footballers were more likely to die of dementia. The study could not say what caused the increased risk but it caused concern about the future health of all players.

Following on from this study the FA established an independently-chaired research taskforce to offer guidance on possible changes to the coaching of heading footballs, review concussion management protocols, and advise on future research. The new guidance has come from the task force as an attempt to minimise any potential risk. It is something that will also be adopted by the Scottish and Irish Football Associations.

The USA ban

In 2015, American children aged 10 and under were banned from heading the ball. This came about after a group of worried parents and players filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation. For many, the decision made America a pioneer in the sport but others just saw them buckling under the threat of legal action. Either way, they were the first country to impose the kind of restrictions that the English, Scottish and Irish FAs have all agreed to.

The decision also raised many questions about how effective the ban would be and how it would impact young players. Especially as young football fans are so likely to try and emulate their sporting heroes. If they see professional players doing it, how many will accept that they can’t do it themselves? There was also the question of how the ban impacted the players psychologically. If children are explicitly told to avoid heading for their safety, how easy will it be to get them to change their ways? If children become too afraid to learn how to do it properly, then they risk getting hurt accidentally as they progress through the game.

Child heading a football

A duty of care

Many people have praised this week’s announcement but there have been plenty who have spoken against it. There is no definitive link between heading the ball and dementia, so a lot of critics see the new guidance as overkill. There is also the argument that footballs have changed enough over the years that the results of the study aren’t representative of the modern game. Plenty of coaches, players and fans see the announcement as diminishing the game without good cause. That the FA are removing a traditional and important part of the game for children and limiting their future in the sport.

Even though there are plenty of arguments against the ban, the FA has said the safety of young people is paramount. To the people who are in favour of the new guidance, they should take every chance to reduce the risk. The new guidelines limit the amount of unnecessary heading in the game, which many think is just common sense. It is only right, they argue, that the FA puts the health of the players ahead of the game itself. That they consider their future. That is certainly the line that the three FAs took when the announcement was made. FA chief executive Mark Bullingham made the following statement:

This updated heading guidance is an evolution of our current guidelines and will help coaches and teachers to reduce and remove repetitive and unnecessary heading from youth football.

Patrick Nelson the chief executive of the Irish FA added:

Our football committee has reviewed and approved the new guidelines. As an association, we believe this is the right direction of travel and are confident it will be good for the game, and those who play it.

The Scottish FA’s chief executive, Ian Maxwell, commented:

Scottish football has a duty of care to young people, their parents and those responsible for their wellbeing throughout youth football.

As far as the three FAs are concerned, the updated guidelines have been introduced so that children can keep enjoying the game and avoid any unnecessary risk to their future health.

Young boy kicking a football

Have your say

So, what do you think? Is the updated approach to heading during training a good thing or a bad thing? Do you think the FA have gone too far without enough evidence? Or do you think the medical advice has steered them in the right direction?

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