Now they’ve really done it. How can America ever win the World Cup if our middle schoolers aren’t allowed to head a soccer ball? That’s the new reality at the Shipley School, where administrators have basically outlawed it.
Pretty soon, other area schools just might follow suit.
Shipley sees it as a sensible reaction to mounting evidence that brain trauma caused by repeated ball-to-skull collisions has lasting effects. It’s part of a growing realization here and elsewhere that asking young people to absorb shots to the melon is one of the more irresponsible things adults can do.
A 2013 study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York’s Yeshiva University supports Shipley’s decision. It shows that players who head the ball frequently “have brain abnormalities resembling those found in patients with concussion.” Thanks to the research being done around the country over the past several years, we’ve learned that concussions suffered by young people can lead to significant problems later on—and not just when they reach middle age. A text message sent by Ohio State football player Kosta Karageorge to his mother just before he committed suicide this past November referenced issues he was having from multiple concussions he’d had during his young life.
Shipley administrators contend that they’re simply responding to the data and creating a safe environment for their student athletes. Working with Chris Nowinski, codirector of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Shipley athletic director Mark Duncan and head of school Steven Piltch enacted a policy last year that prohibits heading in practice for middle school kids, and discourages it in games.
And there’s more. During all competition, Shipley athletes must wear monitors designed to help diagnose the results of head trauma. “Last spring, we had a conference call [with Nowinski], and we brought up the question of whether there was something he could tell us that was safe about young kids heading the ball,” says Duncan. “He said, ‘There’s no way to say it’s safe. That’s not something we’d recommend to anyone, much less encourage it.’ That stuck with me. Everything we do at Shipley is based around wanting kids to be safe.”
Shipley boys and girls from sixth to eighth grade are taught the proper techniques for heading, but they don’t participate in drills to perfect the skill. Instead, they’re taught different ways to play balls that arrive in the air. The goal is that, when they reach high school and higher club levels, they’ll opt for heading less often.
Duncan and Piltch didn’t single-source this through Nowinski. They also spoke with doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Delaware, along with other sports-medicine professionals. To acquire the head monitors worn by players, they’ve partnered with Triax Technologies in Connecticut. As yet, there is no device that can actually detect a concussion, but these produce readings that measure the g-forces absorbed by athletes in any collision—be it with a ball, another player, or the ground.
Shipley players wear the thin headbands in soccer, volleyball, basketball and squash. The goal is to develop a database for each athlete, to better detect any trends and ward off long-term damage. “You can’t go through life fearful that things are going to happen,” says Piltch, who’s been Shipley’s head of school for 23 years. “But when you have data that tells you to look at this seriously, you should do it.”
As recently as 10 years ago, most of the organized sports world scoffed at the evidence linking concussions to any lasting damage. Shipley’s decision to consult with Chris Nowinski gave its new policy the credibility to withstand the backlash.
Nowinski is a Harvard University graduate who played football for the Crimson and was later part of the WWE world. Now working on his Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience at Boston University, he has written extensively about the long-term effects of head trauma and is among the most knowledgeable people in the country on the topic. “We want to have more schools operate like Shipley does,” says Nowinski. “They have a multimodal approach that combines education, strict policies on prevention, and embracing the use of technology. We want to change the culture of the schools.”
It’s impossible to know what new evidence will emerge in the coming years, but Shipley’s aggressive policy allows for some protection now. “We have a better awareness today,” says Piltch. “If we don’t pay attention to the issues, we’re making a mistake. The vast majority of athletes get through their playing days without any life-altering injuries. But we have to worry about those who don’t.”
Duncan points to football’s efforts to be safer at the highest levels. After years of denying the problem, the NFL has finally instituted protocols designed to protect its players from head injuries—and the league from costly lawsuits. Teams have less contact during training camp and weekly practices, and players who target rivals above the shoulders during games can be suspended or fined. High schools have less contact during their practices, and the University of New Hampshire recently staged tackling drills without helmets in an effort to teach proper technique.
At Shipley, Duncan reports that blowback from parents has been “very, very minor.” “The questions from parents came more from not knowing about the monitors or confusing them with concussion monitors,” he says. “Some didn’t want their children to wear the monitors because it would impede performance.”
Apparently, that wasn’t a problem in 2014. The Shipley boys’ soccer team finished 18-2-4, won the Friends Schools League title, and earned the No. 1 seed in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association tournament. As for the girls, they rebounded from five years of disappointing finishes to win a first-round game in the PAISAA tourney.
Meanwhile, Duncan reports that many schools from around the country have inquired about Shipley’s program. “They’re saying that they have to do this,” he says. “It’s a lot of work for the trainers, who have to manage it and make sure the data flows right. They also have to make sure the kids are wearing the headbands every day.”
Naturally, there are still those who scoff at the Shipley model and decry its long-term impact on U.S. soccer. Ten years from now, those protests are likely to seem silly as further evidence mounts—proving once again that the safest way to play is also the best way.