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Heads Up

In a scoreless PSAC soccer match between rivals Lock Haven and Bloomsburg, the Lady Huskies were on the attack. From the wing, a strong kick made its way toward a Bloom teammate streaking toward the goal. As a Lock Haven defender closed in, the kick-pass missed its intended target, striking the LHU player squarely in the head. The ball was deflected away from the goal, but the player dropped to the turf as if hit with a brick.

There was nothing malicious about the play, and medical attention was quick to reach the fallen player. A concussion was the diagnosis, an injury all too common in the sport of women’s soccer, which has the highest concussion rate among female sports.

Formally, a concussion is a type of mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) that affects a person’s brain function. It is usually caused by a blow to the head or violent shaking of the head and upper body. The effects are usually temporary, but they can include headaches, problems with concentration, memory, balance, and coordination. Most people usually recover fully after a concussion, but recovery time varies among those affected.

Blows to the head are treated with a lot more respect and caution than they were years ago when, after a few minutes on the sideline and a few whiffs of smelling salt, the player was sent right back into the game. Athletic trainers are present at most all athletic contests, and coaches of PIAA sports are required to pass a concussion recognition exam prior to each season.

Over my many years of association with sporting events, I have seen and interacted with athletes suffering from concussions, but this one was different because it was personal. My granddaughter, a senior defender on the LHU squad, was the player in question.

In the days that have followed, I’ve given a lot more thought to concussions, with one of the most obvious asking myself, why don’t soccer players wear some type of headgear protection? I know such devices are available on the market, but when was the last time a soccer player was seen wearing one?

While it is always a good idea to ‘use your head’ when in the classroom or on the job, doing so on the soccer field is an entirely different matter.

By definition, in soccer, a header is a technique used to control the ball using the head to pass, shoot, or clear the ball from a standing, jumping, or diving position. It is viewed as an important part of the game and is used by players in every match. The technique requires the player to brace their neck muscles and move their whole body in one swift motion to properly hit the ball with their head.

When the ball makes contact with the forehead, the player should snap their neck forward to direct the ball in the desired direction. On average, a player might head the ball 6 to 12 times during a match.

Veteran soccer coach Mark Lovecchio, currently the head coach of South Williamsport’s Lady Mounties, took time to discuss concussion injuries in his sport.

“High school players are more prone to these types of injuries because they don’t always have the right technique when trying to execute a header. There is such a wide variety of talent at the high school level, but technique does not always match the talent. College players have more experience and know how to use their bodies better to protect themselves.

“From my experience, I think more concussions come from player collisions than headers. But I have also seen more concussions resulting in players getting in the way of shots. Some shots are coming at a high rate of speed and hit players directly in the head. Other times, concussions have occurred when players hit the ground.”

Lovecchio cites today’s awareness as the biggest difference in the frequency of concussion injuries.

“It may seem like there are more concussions now, but I don’t necessarily think that is the case. I think it is probably the same, except we are much more aware of it now. Years ago, we didn’t realize the severity of the injury and didn’t take the precautions we do today. We are just so much more aware and protective now, and we should be.”

Asked about soccer players wearing protective headgear, Lovecchio voiced support.

“Maybe a decade ago, protective gear that almost looked like a headband was being worn by a lot of players. I thought they were a great idea and would catch on. I have had goalies in the past wear various types of headgear, including one that wore a helmet-type protector. I don’t know the medical opinion on the subject, but I just think it is a decent idea.

“The game is not like it was forty years ago. The girls are stronger, faster, and more athletic. They are athletes and competitive, and they get after it.”

Statistics indicate football has the highest concussion rate, with 10.4 concussions occurring per 10,000 athletic exposures. Women’s soccer is second with an occurrence rate of 8.19, followed by boy’s ice hockey, rugby, and basketball.

Over the past 50 years, girls participating in high school soccer have seen phenomenal growth. In 1971, only 700 girls were playing at the high school level. Today, that number surpasses 400,000, a staggering 56,200% increase. Numerically, concussions, although small, are a by-product of a competitive sport.