In November of 2015 US Soccer adopted new rules banning players age eleven and under from heading the ball as part of its campaign for player safety. This specific measure was adopted in an attempt to curb the rising number of concussions in youth soccer. While US Soccer has been mostly commended for trying to make the game (and the long term health of the players) safer, it has created some confusion for referees and some unintended consequences/side effects.
The first issue is that many referees are just not used to having to award an indirect free kick because somebody headed the ball. They’ve called the game a certain way for however many years and it will take some getting used to. Similarly, a number of the players in the affected age groups are not used to not being able to head the ball as they’ve played the game a certain way for however many years. Luckily, this is a small issue and one that will be resolved with the passing of time as players and referees get used to the new rules.
The second issue is another one of confusion. Some states have yet to officially adopt the new rules while other state already have. For example, Mississippi has officially adopted them while neighboring Tennessee has not. The confusion here is that a large number of referees from Mississippi work lots of tournaments in Memphis, TN. The constant back and forth between a state where heading is allowed and one where it isn’t can cause problems. Even staying in a state where it isn’t allowed there is still the possibility of mistakes being made with referees going from U-10 and U-12 games where heading is no longer allowed, to U-14 and U-16 games where it is allowed, and back and forth.
The first two issues can be resolved by the referees with the passing of time and with proper concentration. A third issue, however, falls to the players and is more serious than the others. Since the players in the younger age groups can no longer head the ball, there has been a sharp rise in the number of instances of dangerous play, more commonly referred to by parents and coaches as “high kicks”. This tends to be more common in players with a lower skill level (mainly rec leagues), but regardless of where, it’s happening and it’s still dangerous. While referees not being used to new rules or forgetting what state they’re in is not too big of a deal, dangerous play can be. Most referees and players have been lucky so far, but all it takes is one kid to go for a ball with their foot too high for another player to get seriously hurt.
So while US Soccer does deserve some credit for trying to figure out how to combat the growing problem of concussions, there are still issues that need to be dealt with. Most of them will be fixed by the referees with each passing game, while coaches will have to do a better job of teaching young players how to go for a ball without being dangerous.