HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Thousands of young soccer players will be in Hattiesburg this weekend for a tournament, but they will be competing with new rules.
"There's going to be a lot of adjusting to do," said Danny Owens, coach and director of the Hattiesburg Youth Soccer Association. "We've just started up our season. Most of the teams haven't played a game yet, so with the big tournament this weekend coming into Hattiesburg there's going to be a lot of adjusting, I think, from the parents, players and even the referees."
U.S. Soccer changed the rules for heading the ball in November 2015 "eliminating heading for children 10 and under, and limiting the amount of heading in practice for children between the ages of 11 and 13."
"It's a part of the game just like kicking a ball or scoring a goal, so it's going to be a big adjustment I think for everybody," Owens said.
U.S. Soccer said its Player Safety Campaign is designed to reduce concussions, but Owens said he does not see too many in his youngest players.
"I haven't seen them at the younger ages," he said. "Obviously, at the college games, they're older. We see a lot, but I understand the rule. It prevents those opportunities. It's not just about the ball hitting the head. It's head-to-head collisions, so it just takes away those opportunities all together for the younger ages."
Elizabeth Sullivan, a neurologist at Merit Health Wesley, agrees the rule was more likely designed to reduce concussions by reducing person-to-person contact.
"Some of the studies they've done have suggested that heading the ball or hitting the ball just with your head is a source of that, but that in fact, the person to person contact is where more of the concussions actually come from," she said. "But I think limiting that for players in that age range would certainly be helpful, and any amount of reduction they could do would be great for those kids. Kids, even up to the early ages of adulthood, all the way up to about 25, their brains are still changing. Some of the coding to the nerves is still being developed."
While recent concussion discussions have centered around football and particularly the NFL, Sullivan said concussions are not uncommon in soccer too.
"Within the medical field, concussions are actually a pretty major issue in soccer," Sullivan said. "You think about it more commonly in football, and it is more common in football, but for female athletes, soccer is the biggest sports cause of concussions."
Sullivan said even with the new rules, parents and coaches should have an open dialogue about concussions and be able to recognize when their athlete's headache, nausea or insomnia may be symptoms of a concussion, not an everyday occurrence.
"It's important to have those discussions, maybe if your kid's going to be in sports, before the fact because kids will really develop this kind of 'walk it off' mentality when they're in practices," Sullivan said. "They want to keep playing, and they don't want to get pulled out. It's embarrassing, and it's difficult. We have plans that we use and that I'll give out to families called a 'return to play schedule,' and the idea is that kids need to be back to their baseline before they really start back into whatever their activity is."
Owens said he thinks the adjustments will be gradually accepted over time.
"These next three months will be a big deal," Owens said. "I don't it'll be a big deal starting next soccer season. My son played this weekend, and so we kind of had to deal with it from a player and as parents. I think everybody understands. I don't think everybody likes the rule. You can see how it's kind of changed the game a little bit. There were goal scoring opportunities that were given and taken away because of the heading rule, but by the third game of the tournament, it wasn't as big of an issue."
Sullivan said she can understand why some would argue players should learn to head the ball, but she thinks long-term health also needs to be a priority.
"I think it is important for kids to learn those skills if you think that's something that they're going to want to continue, but at the same time, their academic performance and their other skills in life are probably more important even," she said.
Ownes said removing heading also allows coaches to teach other skills earlier.
"It's changed the game a little bit, but I think it's given coaches opportunities to coach different aspects of the game that they generally wouldn't," Owens said.