As of May 4, the Wichita East girls high school soccer team had suffered only one concussion: freshman defender Peyton Martin, one of two players on the team who’d been wearing a protective headband.
The other girl who wears one of the protective devices and who did not suffer a concussion — sophomore defender Zoey Lee — said she doesn’t know the science behind her equipment but wears it because her mother told her to. The same could be said of Bishop Carroll sophomore defender Paige Stranghoner.
“It’s sort of just there,” Lee said. “It’s part of me.”
In 2015, a group of researches based at the University of Arkansas but including experts from other major colleges studied 25 soccer players in a controlled setting. They gave 12 of the players a “Full90” headband, one of the most commonly used brands, and left 13 without one. The groups were nearly even in terms of gender allotment, age, height, weight, years of playing experience and previous concussion history.
Each player headed a ball launched from a machine at 50 mph 15 times over a 15-minute period from 35 yards away. According to the report, 50 mph is “considered less than the average corner kick speed for collegiate players.”
After the players headed the ball 15 times, doctors tested their neurocognitive performance, which revealed the group wearing the headband showed “significant differences” in verbal memory and reaction time compared with the group that did not — and compared with their own baseline examinations before heading the balls.
The group without headbands “performed significantly faster on reaction time from baseline to post-test, according to the report.
“These findings suggest that the Full90 headband does not mitigate the subtle neurocognitive effects of heading,” the report states. “The differences in the headband group may be attributable to the changes in the magnitude of sustained forces while wearing the headband. The researchers concluded that the deformation of the ball across the protective headband was a key factor during impact.”
Doctors from the 2015 study did not respond to The Eagle’s requests for an interview.
The results of the 2015 study were somewhat surprising. The study found that the energy of a moving ball is absorbed into a softer surface, the headband, which compresses and is felt in the skull. A ball striking a firmer surface, like a forehead, could counter the energy back into the ball.
The report cited a 2008 study conducted in part by Dr. J Scott Delaney, director of emergency medical services and emergency physician at the AXiO Health Clinic Montreal. Delaney also serves as the team physician for the Montreal Impact in the MLS and the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League.
Delaney said soccer headgear isn’t designed to quell a blow to the head from heading the ball. But it is effective in player-to-player contact, where most concussions actually happen, he said.
“It’s one thing to teach a player how to head a ball, but it’s another when you talk about protecting yourself from another player,” Wichita East coach Dylan Gruntzel said. “I think that’s something players and coaches really need to hit home a little bit more on.”
Gruntzel said he doesn’t require his players to wear a headband; that decision is left up to individual families. But the Aces have dedicated practices to concussion testing and heading techniques.
Because of the dangers of heading the ball, many youth soccer leagues have banned the practice altogether. Bishop Carroll coach Greg Rauch said his son’s league actually considers a header a foul.
Delaney said these rules are biologically sound: Young children’s necks are not strong enough yet to control the impact.
“Kids’ heads, almost comically, are sort of like bobbleheads,” Delaney said. “It may sound funny, but a child’s head when it’s born is about 50% the size of an adult’s head, and that’s unlike any other part of the body. They essentially have this giant target that can’t repel any of the force, especially when they don’t have the proper techniques.”
The effects of heading the ball have been felt in the Wichita area. Lee, the Wichita East defender, said she tries to avoid headers. She started wearing the protective headband two years ago after her second concussion and hasn’t had one since.
Stranghoner, the Carroll defender, said she has had two concussions, too, and both were from player-to-player contact — no ball involved. She said she would rather take a ball to the shoulder than off her head. It becomes a business decision, she said.
“People think it’s weird, but it works,” Stranghoner said.
Delaney said that at some point heading the ball becomes an integral part of soccer. The aim isn’t to change the game but rather to make players aware of the risks of the game.
Delaney said that players who wear the headgear generally fall into one of two groups: females and/or athletes who have already suffered a concussion. After one concussion, an athlete is four to six times more likely to experience another. And girls’ necks are naturally weaker than boys’ necks, he said.
Rauch said he has seen more girls wear the headgear than boys — and much of that comes down to what he called “male bravado.”
“It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just a stinger. I don’t need this; I’m invincible,’” Rauch said.
Delaney said that in his work with professional athletes he’s found that women are more likely to be honest about their symptoms after suffering a concussion than men, unless those male athletes are secure in their position on the team.
“Tom Brady isn’t worried that he’s going to get cut if he knows he’s had two concussions in the past,” Delaney said. “But they guys who didn’t know, never answered with their name on it. When we put out the exact same questionnaire anonymously, we found out almost 45% of the players probably had a concussion during the previous season.”
Delaney said a head injury isn’t something to conceal; it can skew data in a study and, more importantly, do more long-term damage to a player.
He believes that wearing a protective device like a headband becomes more socially acceptable when the leader of a team steps forward and sets an example.
“If the LeBron James of your team is wearing something, the other guys will follow,” Delaney said.