The Dangerous Side of Soccer

Soccer can be poetry in motion, but some of the sport’s fundamental skills—challenging for control of and heading balls in the air—can have unpleasant consequences for young players’ health.


Your 12-year-old daughter’s club soccer team just earned a corner kick during a match. As the pass arcs into the box in front of the goal, your daughter peels away from two defenders, leaps to meet the ball with her head and—you wince and turn away. When you look back, you see her celebrating her goal with teammates. It’s a far better outcome than what occurred earlier in the game during another set piece, when two players going for the same ball in the air knocked heads and had to leave the match.

For young soccer players, concussions are a serious—and growing—threat. In September 2016, a study of nearly 3 million 7- to 17-year-old soccer players published in the journal Pediatrics found their concussion rate increased by almost 1,600 percent from 1990 to 2014, although concussions accounted for fewer than 8 percent of the total injuries noted in the study. According to the study authors, possible reasons for the skyrocketing concussion diagnosis rate include greater awareness of the symptoms and potential seriousness of concussions among coaches and parents.

A 2015 JAMA Pediatrics study underscored the link between soccer’s physicality and concussions. In the study of high school soccer players, girls had 4.5 concussions and boys had 2.8 per 10,000 practices or matches. Contact between players caused the most concussions. Heading the ball resulted in more concussions than any other soccer-specific play.

Tips for Parents

What can you do to keep your young Carli Lloyd or Lionel Messi safe from concussions? These tips can help:

  • Encourage your child to follow the principles of good sportsmanship at all times.
  • Ensure coaches and officials know and follow the rules of the game, as many concussions result from illegal play.
  • Find out whether coaches and officials know how to recognize a concussion and have a plan in place to take appropriate steps if a concussion occurs.
  • Have your child work with a fitness professional to strengthen his neck muscles.
  • If your child is 10 or younger, ensure her league follows U.S. Youth Soccer’s recommendation to ban heading for this age group. The organization also advises leagues to limit heading in practice for 11- to 13-year-old players.
  • Teach older kids proper heading technique: eyes on the ball and strike with the forehead.

You Can’t Hide, Concussions

The signs of a concussion can be subtle—not everyone loses consciousness or experiences an injury significant enough to cause severe symptoms, such as vomiting, confusion or difficulty with balance. Knowing what to look for in a mild or moderate concussion is important for every parent, whether your child plays sports or not. Most pediatric concussions have nothing to do with athletics. They happen when children are just being themselves—dancing with reckless abandon, playing tag at recess or riding their bicycles. Here are the red flags to watch out for:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Mild confusion or trouble concentrating
  • Moodiness
  • Nausea
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Vision abnormalities, such as seeing flashing lights

For more information about this health topic, consult your Summit physician or click here to locate a physician.