Hitting Soccer Ball With Head May Cause Impairment : Sports: Study finds that skilled players who take at least 10 head shots a game score lower on IQ test.


Soccer players who repeatedly hit the ball with their head suffer a mild form of the same mental impairment that afflicts boxers who have received multiple concussions, according to a new report presented Saturday in New York.

Skilled soccer players who head the ball at least 10 times a game score an average of nine points lower on a standard IQ test than do their peers who head the ball infrequently, psychologist Adrienne Witol of the Medical College of Virginia told a meeting of the American Psychological Assn.

And 10 of the 17 players in this highest heading category scored among the bottom 5% of all Americans in a frequently used test of concentration and attention, she said, suggesting that years of having a 13-ounce ball hit their heads at 60 m.p.h. have produced significant damage.


The study sparks particular concern because of the growing number of children who are learning the sport--and being taught to use their heads--at an early age.

“I’ve never seen anybody injured by heading the ball . . . but I can see that this might be something that needs to be looked into,” said Roland Bedard, executive director of the Soccer Assn. for Youth.

“Blows to the head damage the brain, and it doesn’t make much difference what causes the blow,” said Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Assn., who has long campaigned against the more obvious brain damage caused by boxing.

In a related study also presented at the APA meeting, psychologist Eric A. Zillmer of Drexel University reported that there is no apparent danger to the brain in 1-meter and 3-meter springboard diving, in which participants strike the water at 30 m.p.h.

Examining intercollegiate divers, both male and female, Zillmer found no evidence of intellectual impairment. He concluded that the cushioning effect of water adds to the deceleration of the divers and that the hands-over-head entry provides further protection.

Many people have frequently questioned the health effects of heading soccer balls. “I’ve heard people talk about it. [The possibility of harm] definitely makes sense,” said USC women’s soccer coach Karen Stanley. “But I’ve never seen any players that have shown any brain damage whatsoever.”

However, sporadic reports persist. Several individual cases of “punch-drunk” retired soccer players have been reported in medical literature, although the cause of their disorders was not established.

The current study by Witol and psychologist Frank M. Webbe of the Florida Institute of Technology appears to be the first scientific investigation of the problem.

Witol and Webbe studied 60 skilled male soccer players over the age of 14 and compared them to each other and to a control group of 12 males of comparable age and educational attainment.

They then administered an IQ test and a variety of other tests that measure mental agility and concentration. The only significant differences appeared on the IQ test and on two different forms of so-called trail making tests--which are, in effect, sophisticated versions of the connect-the-numbers games popular with children.

On the IQ test, the average in the group that did not head the ball was 112, compared to 103 for the group that headed it most frequently.

Score differences were similar for the trail making tests, indicating that those who headed the ball frequently had much more difficulty maintaining concentration.

Witol cautioned that “Yes, they did have poor scores, but I don’t know how it is affecting their functioning. All of the young players are still in school and maintaining the minimum GPA. Among the professionals, a third had master’s degrees.”