English football set for new “high force” heading guidelines in 2021/22

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Footballers at all levels in England will be restricted to just ten “high force” headers weekly in training as part of new guidelines due to commence from the start of the 2021/22 season. The guidelines will be enforced across all professional and amateur leagues, following the conclusion of extensive research into the concerns about the long-term implications of heading a football on the brain.

Two years ago, a study revealed that professional footballers were at greater risk of sustaining neurodegenerative brain disease as a consequence of regularly heading footballs at high impact. According to a joint statement between the English Football League, the English Premier League, the Professional Footballers’ Association and the League Managers’ Association, the “preliminary studies” showed that the majority of headers in games and training “involve low forces”. Therefore, its focus was on restricting headers involving “higher forces”.

What constitutes a “high force” header?

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The statement adds that a “high force” header is usually derived from a long pass of “more than 35m” or a cross, corner kick or free kick. The governing bodies of English football insist that these new guidelines are designed to “protect player welfare”. However, they will be “reviewed regularly” based on future studies to better understand the relationship between heading and neurodegenerative brain disease.

There is a genuine sense that English football’s governing bodies are working hard to improve their protection of the health and wellbeing of players – both professional and amateur. Multiple academic studies are also looking into the importance of fixture scheduling, with congested periods of the season said to heavily impact on a player’s on-field intensity when they have less than four days to recover between matches. The likelihood of a winter break for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar could be an opportune trial run to test whether players would benefit physically and mentally from a few weeks off during the festive season.

When it comes to the risks of heading a football with neurodegenerative brain disease, it’s possible that heading could be phased out of the sport completely long term. In England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, youth players aged 11 are not taught to head the football during training sessions. Older youth players are also restricted by FA guidelines as to the amount of heading permitted.

It is said that a standard size football weighs around 500g. Scientists have since calculated that, when a ball flies through the air, it can strike a player’s head at speeds as fast as 128km/h. Three years ago, the University of British Columbia deemed that footballers who regularly head the ball are more likely to record increased levels of protein in their blood connected with nerve damage.

Medical links between dementia and football

The first links between dementia and football were drawn in 2002, following the passing of former England international and West Brom icon Jeff Astle. The 59-year-old was diagnosed with an early onset of dementia. 12 years after his passing, further examinations of Astle’s brain revealed he had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is most suffered by professional boxers, causing brain diseases such as dementia, as well as memory loss. The eventual findings indicated Astle had sustained brain damage over many years of prolonged heading of footballs that were made of much heavier leather in years gone by.

The University College London (UCL) and Cardiff University joined forces in 2017 to publish a report containing an additional six post-mortem examinations of former professional footballers. The document revealed that four of the six players demonstrated signs of CTE. UCL’s Professor Huw Morris said at the time of the report that this was evidence of dementia in “a series of players” for the first time.

Causes of dementia are not exclusively linked to physical trauma to the brain, which makes it difficult to fully pin the effects of football on neurodegenerative brain disease. People that lead an unhealthy lifestyle, such as smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or being overweight, are also more likely to suffer from dementia.