The Irish Football Association, alongside its Scottish and English counterparts, have taken steps to curtail heading in youth football. This follows research which show former professionals are more than three times likely than non-footballers to die from brain disease.
The “updated Heading Guidance”, drawn up in conjunction with UEFA’s medical committee, states that children between the ages of six and eleven will no longer be allowed to head the ball during training sessions.
A “graduated approach” will be taken to children between the ages of 12 and 16. There will be no limit applied to heading in matches for any age group.
The new guidelines have been released following the landmark FIELD study into footballers and brain disease, conducted by the University of Glasgow last year. Based on the health records of 7,676 former players and 23,000 members of the public, it was the largest study of its kind and found shocking conclusions.
According to the report, former professionals were 3.5 times as likely as a member of the general public to die from brain disease and, more specifically, five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s, four times more likely to die of motor neurone disease and twice as likely to die of Parkinson’s.
The governing bodies were keen to stress that the results of the FIELD study did not prove that heading had caused the conditions experienced by former professionals. There is also an acknowledgement that heading is not currently a significant feature of competitive youth football, meaning the ban will not be applied to matches.
In a joint announcement from the FA, Scottish FA and Irish FA, coaches were advised that there should be “no heading in training in the foundation phase”.
FA chief executive, Mark Bullingham, said: “This updated heading guidance is an evolution of our current guidelines and will help coaches and teachers to reduce and remove repetitive and unnecessary heading from youth football.
“Our research has shown that heading is rare in youth football matches, so this guidance is a responsible development to our grassroots coaching without impacting the enjoyment that children of all ages take from playing the game.”
The FAI say they will continue to assess developments regarding some associations’ ban on children heading the ball.
FAI Interim Deputy CEO Niall Quinn said: “We are in communication with the football authorities in the UK and with UEFA on this issue. The health and safety of our schoolboys and schoolgirls is paramount and we note the decision taken in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England to ban heading in training for all players up to 12-years of age.
“Our underage players already play with a lighter ball depending on their age and we will continue to assess developments across Europe on an ongoing basis in relation to this issue.”