Football authorities have been warned not to let Covid-19 distract them from another burning issue in sport – heading and links to dementia.
At the end of February this year, football associations in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland issued landmark guidance stipulating that children aged 11 and under should not be taught to head footballs in training.
There are also new rules limiting heading in training right up until players are aged 18.
But now one researcher has voiced concerns that the Coronavirus pandemic, which broke shortly after these guidelines were announced, could see authorities ‘taking their eye off the ball’ when it comes to continued research into the links between heading and dementia – particularly when it comes to applying restrictions to the adult game.
Jake Ashton is a Sport and Exercise scientist at Liverpool Hope University and has conducted his own research into how heading has a detrimental effect on brain function.
And he cautions: “Football clearly has major issues right now, stemming from the very top right down to grassroots levels, because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“All eyes are on the Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’, and what that might mean for everyone in the sport.
“But it’s also crucial we don’t allow Covid-19 to let us take our eye off the ball when it comes to heading in football.
“Before Coronavirus, heading in football was the major issue in the sport. It was dominating news agendas.
“The announcement in February was also just the beginning of a long process. That includes more research into the repercussions, which in turn may prompt restrictions in training for adult players as well as youngsters.
“There are obviously more pressing issues right now, but it’s important to remember that the links between heading and football don’t go away just because of a new disease.
“This is still going to be something which persists post-Covid-19 and which will affect players for many years to come.
“Despite everything else, I feel like this should still be at the forefront of people’s minds as players return to training pitches.”
Jake’s research, currently in the submission process, found heading a football just 20 times could be enough to have a detrimental effect on brain function.
He took a group of test subjects and analysed ‘cognitive function’ – including memory and mental agility – before and immediately after they headed a football twenty times.
And the results are ‘concerning’ – with ‘working memory’ declining by as much as 20 per cent and the vast majority of test subjects also displaying signs of concussion.
Jake, a Postgraduate research student, said: “Our results are both surprising and concerning.
“We investigated the immediate effect heading a football has on cognitive function.
“Participants performed a series of cognitive function tests before and after a bout of 20 headers.
“They also performed a pitch-side screening for concussion, which showed that 80 per cent of the participants showed potential signs of concussion.
“With the cognitive tests, there was a significant reduction in verbal and spacial working memory.”
The study itself involved a group of 20 amateur male footballers aged between 18 and 25.
They were split into two groups – one who headed a ‘hard’ football, corresponding to the maximum regulated pressure as governed by the FA, the other headed a ‘soft’ football at the minimum regulated pressure.
When ‘Saccadic eye speed’ was measured – ie, how quickly you can locate and identify visual targets – function decreased by around 10 per cent.
Spatial span – the recall of objects in space within a particular sequence – reduced by an average of 15 per cent.
Meanwhile ‘digit span’ – the recall of certain numbers within a particular sequence – tailed-off by 20 per cent in the group heading the hard football.
There are also ramifications when it comes to concussion.
The ‘Saccadic eye speed test’ is adopted by many experts in North American sports as an indicator of concussion.
The time needed to complete the test increased by three seconds when compared to baseline, it’s considered a possible concussion and athletes are removed from competition.
In the Liverpool Hope University test, participants indicated a four second gain following headers, while also being more error prone.
There was just one test where heading didn’t have a detrimental impact, which was a ‘trail marking’ assessment testing executive function and basic motor control.
Jake adds: “Ten of the participants headed balls with a PSI of around 8, while the other 10 headed balls with a PSI of around 16 – pressures at either end of FA guidelines.
“The group with the higher-pressure ball showed greater declines in working memory than the other group.
“And overall both groups showed significant reductions in verbal and spacial working memory.
“Our research doesn’t look at the repercussions of heading a football over a number of years.
“While more research is needed, there may also be a need to put measures in place to limit heading during football training sessions, in all ages.
“It may also be advantageous to use sponge balls during children’s training sessions, so they can practice the technique without having the repercussions of heading a heavier ball.
“The impacts of using a harder ball should also not be ignored.
“It’s my view that referees at grassroots levels should have to measure the ball pressure before kick offs – and the fact the FA guidelines in regard to this are so broad, they should be reassessed.”
The move to limit heading in training came following a separate report, published in October last year by University of Glasgow, which found links between former professional footballers and brain disease.
The study suggested players could be three and a half times more likely to die of dementia.
At the time Dr Willie Stewart, the consultant neuropathologist who led the University of Glasgow study, said: “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.”