Concussion concerns tighten officiating for prep soccer

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As the start of a new school year draws near, there will be the usual angst that comes with the expectation of major injuries that are an accepted downside to playing high school football – the game recently called “high school’s deadly sport” in a front-page USA Today article, which is reflective of the high incidence of concussions in the sport.

But look a little further down the road to find the sport that’s growing in popularity – and also in concussion-related injuries.  Soccer has moved into third place in the concussion rate per sport, behind football and ice hockey.

In a study recently published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, a group of 100 public and private high school soccer coaches reported a total of 1,000 concussions among both boys’ and girls’ teams over the course of the nine-year study.

But the number of actual concussions that occurred was likely much higher.  It’s a recognized fact that most players, particularly boys, do not always tell their coaches when they suspect they may have suffered a concussion because they want to stay in the game.

For a long time, heading the ball was considered the primary cause of concussions in soccer.  But now we’re finding out that it’s player contact that’s more of a problem.  One study blamed almost 70 per cent of boys’ concussions on player contact, rather than heading the ball.

In general, only about one-third of the boys’ concussions were a direct result of heading the ball, and about 25 percent among the girls.

Contact can include player-to-player, or as a result of slamming into an apparatus such as a goal post or banging one’s head on the ground.  And studies are showing that soccer matches have become rougher, with fewer fouls and penalties called during games.

So the national  organization that oversees high school sports is beginning to clamp down on the rough play.  Bob Colgate, the sports medicine director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, recently outlined the organization’s plan to put an emphasis on curbing fighting and reckless play when its soccer rules committee meets before the upcoming season, which starts in December for Arizona high schools.

It’s not so much a matter of changing the rules, but rather enforcing those that are already in the books.  Despite the dangers associated with heading, the movement toward controlling the over-the-top aggression in high school games should play an even bigger role in keeping players safe.

As one expert points out, kids will play by whatever rules they are given.

But it’s up to the officials to enforce those rules.