MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Kids who play soccer should not head the ball before high school. That's the recommendation from a new campaign that's trying to educate parents, coaches and kids about the dangers of concussion and brain injury in soccer. The doctors behind the campaign say heading the ball before age 14 poses special risks to a child's brain development. Helping to lead the campaign are three former members of the U.S. women's national team that won the World Cup in 1999. Among them, Cindy Parlow Cone, who cited post-concussion syndrome when she retired from the game. She told me she still experiences fatigue and headaches, which she believes can be traced to years and years of heading the ball, starting at a really early age.
CINDY PARLOW CONE: Well, I started playing soccer when I was about three years old because my older siblings played it, and I wanted to do everything that they were doing. And then as a youth growing up, several years ago - we won't say how many - heading was a part of the game from the onset. As soon as you started playing soccer you started learning how to head the ball, and so by the time I reached 14 I'd probably headed the ball over a thousand times already.
BLOCK: Really? And did you notice any effects when you were that little?
CONE: I remember seeing stars every once in a while when I'd head the ball, but I never really thought much of it. I mean obviously I know now that that is not normal - to see stars, and that's a minor concussion.
BLOCK: I wonder if you've talked to doctors who have said, yeah, we're pretty sure that your experience in youth soccer contributed to what you're experiencing now.
CONE: Yeah, I mean we didn't know better when I was growing up, but now we do. And I think when you know better you have to do better, and we have a responsibility to all the youth kids out there playing soccer to try to make the sport as safe as possible for them. I'm a youth soccer coach, and I will be talking with the kids that I'm coaching about, you know - we're not going to practice heading. I coach 11 and 12-year-olds right now, and there's no need for them to be heading the soccer ball yet. We'll focus on other technical and tactical skills associated - that are developmentally appropriate for them.
BLOCK: Do you get pushback from parents, because I know from being on the sidelines of lots of youth soccer games that anytime a kid heads the ball, the parents go crazy - hey, that's great. And I would imagine, you know, if you're telling your kids not to do it, you might get parent saying we're going to lose. We're going to be noncompetitive.
CONE: Well, I think that's something that we have to communicate well with parents. At the forefront of this is to keep their kids safe, which I don't know a parent out there that doesn't want to keep their kid safe. So if this means delaying heading until they're in high school and 14 years of age, then that's what it means. And I think that's why this is so important is just during those developmental years, we're not having them constantly hit the ball with their heads. That repetition is not good for that age group, and they need to wait a little bit longer.
BLOCK: I'm curious. When you're coaching youth soccer, what do you tell a parent if he or she comes to you and asks, you know, why can't my kid had the ball at age 10, 11, 12? What do you tell them?
CONE: Well, I think in - first of all, until this campaign becomes the rule - that there is no heading in any of the leagues that these kids are playing in, I don't think I can tell them not to head the ball. I can tell them that I'm not going to practice it in practice, and I can tell them that I'm not going to force them to head the ball in the games. If the ball comes to them in the game before the leagues change the rule and they head the ball, I'm not going to punish them in any sort of way. But just by eliminating the heading in practice and eliminating them feeling like they have to head the ball in the game, already, we're decreasing the number of impacts they're taking to the head.
BLOCK: Well, Cindy Parlow Cone, thanks so much for talking with us.
CONE: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: That's Cindy Parlow Cone, former member of the U.S. women's national soccer team. She's helping to spearhead the campaign, Parents and Prose for Safer Soccer.
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