Clubs in English football may be required to significantly adapt their training methods after the game’s leading bodies agreed new guidance to limit the number of headers players are allowed to make.
The recommendations will restrict footballers to 10 “higher-force” headers a week in training amid continued investigations into the potential health risks associated with regularly heading a ball, which could include dementia. They were announced on Wednesday by the Football Association, Premier League, English Football League, Professional Footballers’ Association and League Managers Association, and include stipulations for the professional and amateur games.
It follows multiple studies undertaken in recent months by a subgroup of the Professional Football Negotiating and Consultative Committee, which involved a cohort of players from Liverpool’s under-23, under-18 and women’s teams, and Manchester City’s under-18 and women’s teams.
The development is expected to be broadly welcomed within the game although questions have been raised about the practicality of enforcement and there have been calls for the guidance to go further, particularly where considerations around women and children are concerned.
Higher-force headers were defined in a joint statement by the authorities as “typically headers following a long pass (more than 35m) or from crosses, corners and free-kicks”. It pointed out additionally that the majority of headers involve “low forces”. Nonetheless, clubs that observe the guidance to the letter are likely to find training for set pieces, a cornerstone of preparations at all levels, particularly challenging given the number of aerial duels traditionally involved.
In further detail, the guidelines suggest clubs limit the number of headers carried out when a player takes three or more steps and runs on to the ball, or dives to meet it. They also propose that players hone heading technique using thrown passes, which involve “lower peak accelerations”.
For adult amateur football, it is recommended heading practice is limited to 10 headers per session, undertaken in one session per week. The statement said this guidance was “to reduce overall exposure to heading without compromising development of technique and the role heading plays in the English game”.
The FA chef executive, Mark Bullingham, said: “These measures have been developed following studies with coaches and medics and represent a cautious approach whilst we learn more. We are committed to further medical research to gain an understanding of any risks within football; in the meantime this reduces a potential risk factor.”
Professional clubs will be encouraged to ensure players have adequate time after matches to recover from heading. The studies found “early but limited evidence” that greater neck muscle strength may contribute to safer heading and research will be conducted into how that may developed safely.
Clubs’ adherence to the guidance will not be policed although they are expected to take it seriously. Some figures in the game have wondered how, in practice, it can be applied in a competitive training session. The statement said “it is essential that club staff monitor each player’s heading practice in real time” and that clubs should develop profiles detailing the nature of the headers each player usually undertakes.
Dr Michael Grey, a football and dementia expert from the University of East Anglia who gave evidence to the government’s “concussion in sport” report last week, welcomed the guidelines but expressed some reservations.
“It remains unclear on what basis these specific FA limitations have been made and how the new guidance will be enforced,” he said. “The recommendations make no distinction based on gender despite growing evidence that women are more susceptible to head injury than are men. There are biological differences between male and female in both structure and physiology that warrant a more considered approach.”
Grey also said that an outright ban on heading in younger children should be considered. Children at primary school are not allowed to head the ball in training.
The ramifications of heading have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. A study by the University of Glasgow in 2019 found former footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases. This month an MPs’ inquiry said sport had been allowed to “mark its own homework” in reducing brain injury risks.