March 26, 2021
English football will implement new protocols for heading in the professional game this summer, following the announcement of two new studies into how it affects an athlete’s brain.
The Premier League confirmed on Friday that it is to conduct the research over the remainder of this season, before the findings are incorporated into new rules that will be agreed with professional and amateur bodies. The findings are expected to result in limits on heading in training for all adults.
It follows growing calls for action on heading and specifically for limits to be imposed in training, with the campaigner and former professional Chris Sutton telling MPs at a select committee hearing this week that a cap of 20 headers per session should be set immediately.
The studies will be central to informing any changes. The first is to be conducted among a cohort of players from Liverpool’s under-23, under-18 and women’s teams and Manchester City’s under-18s and women’s teams. The players will wear mouthguards with built-in accelerometers and proximity sensors that allow for the frequency and intensity of impacts from heading a ball to be recorded.
The Protecht mouthguards, designed by the company Sports and Wellbeing Analytics, have been used in trials at Stanford University and are being worn by players at a number of rugby union clubs including Harlequins, Leicester and Bristol Women.
A second study will look at match-tracking data and video from the 2019-20 Premier League season to observe the intensity of headers in a match situation. There is no consideration being given to limiting headers within matches, but the data will form part of the decisions on a training protocol to be undertaken by the Professional Football Negotiating and Consultative Committee, a body drawn up from representatives from across the game.
Football authorities have said that understanding the variation in impacts from different types of heading is important before deciding on guidelines. Speaking to MPs at the digital, culture, media and sport select committee this week, the FA’s chief medical officer, Charlotte Cowie, said there was an agreement on limiting heading but that: “It might be 10 [from a long ball] was equivalent to 20 shorter ones. We want a little bit more detail on that before we rule within the professional game but we fully intend to do that and also in the adult grassroots game.”
Announcing the research the chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Masters, said: “The Premier League’s focus is to make the game as safe as possible for all players. We are working with our partners across football to achieve this and the research studies we are undertaking are just one example of our commitment to this important issue. We hope the results of this project will contribute to the development of practical guidelines for the professional and adult game in this country.”