Changes to the guidelines for coaches of primary school children advising them not to include heading in their training are not intended as a blanket ban, says Les Howie, head of grassroots coaching at the FA.
The football associations of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland on Monday announced they were implementing the changes to reduce health risks.
They come as a result of a FIELD study, joint-funded by the English FA and the PFA, which was published in October.
The study found professional footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the population.
It did not identify the cause of the increased risk, but repeated heading of the ball was found to be a likely factor.
Speaking to Sky Sports News, Howie explained: “I think there’s lots of myths out there. This is not a ban on heading. This is about guidance to support our volunteer coaches, who do a fantastic job introducing children to the game.
“When you look at mini soccer, you will see on average one, two, three headers a game. So why spend a lot of time in training practising a skill we rarely see?”
Under the new guidelines, while heading in training for children at U11 level and below will be discouraged, it will still be permitted in matches due to the low amount of headers that occur in those games.
The FAs implemented the changes after consultation with UEFA, which is expected to offer Europe-wide guidance on the issue later this year.
Howie said: “I think what we’ve demonstrated on this is real leadership in giving the game some guidance on what is the best way to introduce heading.
“There will be some people out there who I absolutely get will think we’ve been over cautious, we’ve went too far, it’s ‘PC gone mad’; it’s not.
“This is a balanced, measured response for what the modern game looks like.
“I’d love to be here in three years’ time, when the next lot of research is out, and say, ‘you know what, we were over cautious’.
“But I’d rather be apologising for being over cautious than apologising that we’ve not gone far enough.”
Dawn Astle said she was “really pleased” with the changes. Her father Jeff Astle, who played for England and West Brom, died in 2002, with the coroner ruling it was as a result of repeated heading of footballs.
“We’re all really pleased – it’s sensible following the results of the FIELD study,” she told the PA news agency. “We must take early steps to avoid exposing children’s brains to risk of trauma and by saying there’s no heading in training for primary school children is a really sensible way to make the game we all love safer for all those involved.”
‘A logical step, but more research needed’
Professor Willie Stewart, the lead academic on the FIELD study, welcomed the move but believes ultimately the game’s governing bodies must go further.
He said: “I’m encouraged to see these changes being made in FA, SFA and NIFA youth football.
“A lot more research is needed to understand the factors contributing to increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in footballers. Meanwhile it is sensible to act to reduce exposure to the only recognised risk factor so far.
“As such, measures to reduce exposure to unnecessary head impacts and risk of head injury in sport are a logical step.
“I would, however, like to see these proposals introduced as mandatory, rather than voluntary at present, and a similar approach to reduce heading burden adopted in the wider game of football, not just in youth football.”
‘Should it be limited to children?’
The new guidelines were welcomed by Headway, the brain injury association, but it questioned why the ban should be limited to children.
“In light of the robust research conducted by the University of Glasgow linking football to degenerative neurological conditions, it seems entirely sensible to limit the number of times children are allowed to head footballs,” said Peter McCabe, Headway chief executive.
“The question is, is this enough? Should it be limited to children?
“We cannot allow for key questions to remain unanswered, such as at what age is it safe to head a modern football – if at all? Neither can we afford to wait 30 years for the results of a longitudinal study to reveal the answers or hesitate to introduce other common sense measures that protect players – such as concussion substitutes.
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