Play smart and watch your head

Times Staff Writer

Soccer players take note: Having a strong neck might help you head the ball better, but it might not help you avoid a concussion.

One of the signature moves in soccer is heading the ball -- relaying or moving the ball downfield with a quick bump on the noggin. In the course of a soccer season, players in certain positions will head the ball many times as well as collide with other players, risking occasional concussive injury.

Some soccer coaches recommend resistance training aimed at strengthening the neck muscles to counteract this effect. In theory, says researcher Ryan Tierney, "a strong neck should stabilize the neck area and make it less prone to the sudden acceleration that occurs when heading the ball" or colliding with another player.

To test this assumption, Tierney, director of the graduate athletic program at Temple University in Philadelphia, put 36 male and female intercollegiate soccer players through an eight-week resistance training program designed to strengthen neck muscles and then measured the participants' response to applied force. Training included twice-a-week progressive neck extension and flexion exercises on an isotonic neck resistance training machine.

At the end of the program, participants of both genders were found to have stronger, thicker necks, but were not found to have a notable improvement in their ability to stabilize the neck area when force was applied.

The results of the experiment were something of a surprise to Tierney, who had expected to see improvement, particularly among female athletes, who have a higher rate of concussive injury than their male counterparts.

The investigators had hypothesized that the gender difference was due to the fact that males generally have stronger, thicker necks than females. So, they thought, increasing the players' neck girth and strength would result in less head-neck acceleration upon impact, and ostensibly a decreased risk of concussion.

Tierney says the absence of an effect in the study may have been due to the relatively low amount of force used in the testing phase, relative to that found on the playing field.

Jeff Tipping, director of coaching development for the National Soccer Coaches Assn. of America, said he would still recommend resistance training targeting the neck area, particularly for players in high-impact positions, but not necessarily to reduce injury. He believes that a strong neck can help in controlling the ball.

He also suggests that some injuries caused by heading can be avoided by teaching players how to head the ball properly.

Despite the findings, at the conclusion of the test a number of the participants reported that they felt better and stronger when they headed the ball.

"This was good to hear," says Tierney, "because we're trying to improve performance as well as protect the players."

Tierney emphasizes that the study is the first of its kind, relatively small in scale, and by no means the last word on the subject.

The study was published in the December issue of the Journal of Athletic Training.

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