Heading guidance to be introduced for all levels of English football next season

Guidance on heading will be introduced into the English game from next season, with all professional, amateur and grassroots clubs involved.

Clubs in the Premier League, EFL, Barclays Women’s Super League, FA Women’s Championship, National League, the Women’s Football Pyramid Tiers 3 and below, all grassroots football and across the England national teams will receive the guidance as the governing bodies try to address the risk of brain injuries.

The advice, agreed by the Football Association, Premier League, EFL, Professional Footballers Association and League Managers Association, will not affect the rules of the game, but will be centred on how heading is performed in training sessions.

Professional clubs will be directed to limit ‘high force’ headers – those following a long pass of more than 35 metres or from crosses, corners and free-kicks – to 10 per training week, while also developing specific player profiles which will help tailor their training needs.

Further guidance will be sent to clubs on coaching practices to help develop heading technique using a lower force, such as throwing a ball to a header instead of kicking and players heading from a standing position instead of a running jump.

An advisory panel will also be set up to explore strength and conditioning techniques for the neck and torso, which have an impact on the force of heading.

The guidance for amateur clubs is for heading practice to be limited to one session per week and no more than 10 headers per session and players should be responsible for their own monitoring of their output.

Guidelines for youth football were announced in February 2020 and remain in place.

The new guidelines are being introduced in professional, amateur and grassroots levels of the English game
The new guidelines are being introduced in professional, amateur and grassroots levels of the English game (Adrian Dennis/PA)

FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said: “We already have the most comprehensive guidelines in the world for youth football and now we are introducing, in partnership with the other football bodies, the most comprehensive adult football guidelines anywhere. Our heading guidance now reaches across all players, at all levels of the game.

“These measures have been developed following studies with coaches and medics and represent a cautious approach whilst we learn more. We are committed to further medical research to gain an understanding of any risks within football, in the meantime this reduces a potential risk factor.

“Overall it is important to remember that the overwhelming medical evidence is that football and other sports have positive impacts on both mental and physical health.”

The governing bodies will deliver expanded research throughout the season as part of a formal review of the guidance in June 2022.

Co-founder of the Jeff Astle Foundation Dawn Astle, whose father’s death was ascribed to industrial disease linked to the repeated heading of a ball, welcomed the announcement.

“Most importantly it starts to protect the footballers of today and their brains, it will protect youngsters playing on a Saturday and Sunday, it will protect our female footballers and footballers all across the Football League,” she said on talkSPORT.

“The industrial injuries panel must accept that dementia in football is an industrial disease. We will keep working and we will keep being the voice of all the players and families of the players that are affected.

“Football must put in place a pot of money or a trust fund to look after the players now who are suffering from dementia or neurological diseases. It was their job.

“Our footballers are five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s, four times more likely to die of motor neurone disease and twice as likely to die of Parkinson’s.”

Football and dementia expert Dr Michael Grey, from the University of East Anglia’s School of Health Sciences, has called for gender-specific guidance and wants clarification on how it will be enforced.

“The FA’s new guidance on this issue is welcome because there is an active debate with many researchers and medical professionals calling for a reduced heading of the ball for many years,” he said.

“However, it remains unclear on what basis these specific FA limitations have been made and how the new guidance will be enforced.

“The recommendations make no distinction based on gender despite growing evidence that women are more susceptible to head injury than men. There are biological differences between male and female in both structure and physiology that warrant a more considered approach.

“Furthermore, it is notable that the new guidance is restricted to adults. There has been no change in the guidance for children where heading the ball in training has been discouraged by the FA, albeit not enforced, and heading the ball in match play is still permitted.

“This is problematic due to the fact that the brain of a child is at significantly greater risk to brain injury than that of an adult.

“It is time to consider an outright ban on heading the ball for younger children – both in practice and match play, complete with an enforcement strategy.

“An evidence-based programme to introduce heading into the game at an appropriate age and stage of physical development would be welcomed.

“This is a global game. We have an opportunity to be leading the way internationally.”