December 8, 2021
Beginning in 2018, footballer Freya Holdaway suffered three concussions in the space of only 18 months.
After experiencing the second concussion, Holdaway had two seizures on the side of the pitch. She was back on the field a season later when she suffered a third. The former Arsenal and Crystal Palace defender played for Northern Ireland in the 2019 World Cup before taking the decision to retire from the sport in 2020 to prevent further damage to her health.
Holdaway, 32, recalls training sessions where she had to head the ball continuously. “You just had to get your head on the ball,” she tells CNN. “After a couple of those sessions, I remember walking away thinking … you’re seeing stars, surely that’s not right.”
In 2019, a landmark study of retired professional footballers conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow, found former players were 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with degenerative neurocognitive diseases than the general population. These diseases can be caused by concussion and repetitive sub-concussive injury — impact to the head that results in minor damage to the brain without being so severe as to provoke clear symptoms.
At the start of this season, guidance from the English Football Association advised clubs to limit training for professional and amateur players to just 10 “higher-force” headers a week. As the sport struggles to find a solution that doesn’t drastically change the way the game is played, one alternative to practicing headers with a ball could be to practice them virtually.
Football, without the ball
UK-based software company Rezzil uses VR technology to provide a virtual training environment for sports. “Rezzil is essentially a training game,” explains founder Andy Etches. Wearing a VR headset, users can take part in animated training drills on a simulated pitch, designed by professional coaches.
The platform can be used to practice football skills without a team, a pitch, or even a ball. For header training, players head a virtual ball, letting them practice the movements and techniques that would be applied in a real game, without the risk of an impact to the head.
Etches says the simulation provides the same benefits as practicing with a real ball. “You have to time your head correctly,” he says. “You have to position your body correctly. You have to get into position — to do what you would do in the game.”
The training simulator was developed in line with research currently being undertaken by Manchester Metropolitan University into the long-term effects of concussion and sub-concussive events on athletes, and Rezzil’s investors include football legends Thierry Henry and Vincent Kompany.
A headset and screen may feel like a departure from the soul of the beautiful game, but what this technology lacks in mud and sweat it makes up for in a chance for players to train without fear of brain injury.
According to Michael Grey, a rehabilitation neuroscientist at the UK’s University of East Anglia, heading in football can cause serious long-term brain health issues because of repeated sub-concussive impact.
“The repetitive heading of the ball, the repetitive sub-concussive injury, day after day, year after year — doing this for a whole career, that’s leading to much greater damage from the point of view of neurodegeneration than a single concussion,” Grey tells CNN.
“All heading is bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s in match play or in practice,” he adds. “What we can do now is reduce heading in practice and one of the ways that we can do that is to introduce different practice techniques, to stop heading the ball as much and introduce better training techniques, and that might involve more advanced technology.”