Scotland introduces heading ban as more evidence on damage emerges

As the FIFA world cup continues, adults playing football in Scotland, including professionals, are to be banned from heading a ball on the day before and the day after a match.

The move comes as new research has shed more light on the damage to the brain from repeatedly heading a ball, with the new rules likely to be adopted in countries across the world.

Under the new rules heading practice will be restricted to once per week, removed from any training on the days surrounding a match and heading activity will be monitored by clubs as the Scottish Football Association acts on the latest research.

The Scottish FA (SFA), in conjunction with Hampden Sports Clinic, has completed new research into heading in training.

This latest study has included data and insights from across the men’s and women’s adult game [18 and over] with recommendations following consultation with key groups, including 50 clubs across the professional men’s and women’s games, PFA Scotland and the Coaches’ and Managers’ Association.

The Scottish FA surveyed a number of Scottish Premier Football League, (SPFL) and Scottish Women’s’ Premier League, (SWPL) clubs to better understand current heading practices within the professional game. A follow-up survey was conducted with managers and coaches, with over 70 percent being supportive of heading guidelines being introduced. In a further recent survey of players carried out in conjunction with PFA Scotland, the majority of players [64 percent] believed heading should be limited in training.

Overseen by the Scottish FA’s Chief Medical Consultant, Dr John MacLean, and Hampden Sport Clinic’s head of research and education, Dr Katy Stewart, the guidelines have been shared with the adult game, including professional level, for immediate introduction:

  • Training exercises which could involve repeated heading should be carried out no more than once a week.
  • Training exercises which could involve repeated heading should not take place on the day before or the day after a match this includes activities such as crossing and finishing and set piece practice.
  • Clubs should plan and monitor heading activity in training to reduce the overall heading burden.

“The guidelines have been written with player welfare at the foremost consideration,” said a SFA statement. “The possible link between heading, head injury and neurodegenerative disease in football will continue to be the subject of scientific research and these guidelines will continue to be reviewed in the light of any new evidence.”

Ian Maxwell, Scottish FA CEO said: “The historic University of Glasgow study (FIELD), which found an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in retired professional footballers, compared to a matched population control group, has been a catalyst for a radical rethink of football guidance, starting in the youth game with the introduction of the heading guidelines for children between 6-17 in 2020.

“The Scottish FA said at the time that this research should shape the thinking in the adult game not just domestically but across the world. I am grateful to everyone in the professional game, clubs, coaches and managers, and players, for contributing to the latest research which has culminated in these new guidelines.

“It is our intention that these guidelines will be embraced and implemented with immediate effect. The publishing of these guidelines represents our ongoing commitment to player welfare.”

Dr John MacLean, Scottish FA Chief Medical Consultant added: “It is important to reiterate that while the FIELD study was not designed to identify the causes of this increased risk, both head injury and heading have been suggested as possible contributing factors to neurodegenerative disease.

“While the research continues to develop, what we already know about heading and its effects on the brain suggests that there is measurable memory impairment lasting 24-48 hours following a series of headers, and that brain related proteins can be detected in blood samples for a short time after heading. Brain scan changes have also been reported in footballers that may be linked to heading. Therefore, the goal is to reduce any potential cumulative effect of heading by reducing the overall exposure to heading in training.

“Scotland was the first country in the world to have a single set of Concussion Guidelines for all sports and the ‘If In Doubt, Sit Them Out’ campaign is now widely recognised and implemented across all sports.”