At the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, athletic officials say they care more about blocking head injuries than blocking free kicks.
The private Main Line school on Thursday banned middle school soccer players from heading the ball - the first school in the nation to do so - and also said most high school athletes will wear sensors to measure both the frequency and intensity of blows to the head.
"We've seen a growing trend of injuries in our students, severe head injuries," said athletic director Mark Duncan. "They're sitting out weeks to months from school."
The dramatic changes also reflect growing concern by school officials, who have seen a sharp rise in head injuries in all contact sports, particularly girls' soccer. Duncan said Thursday's move at Shipley was prompted by the June launch of a national concussion safety campaign by top athletes such as Brandi Chastin, the winning-goal scorer for the United States in the 1999 Women's World Cup.
The school is working with the Sports Legacy Institute, a Boston-based research group that has called for limiting contact in all youth sports and delaying the use of headers until high school. SLI said the school is the first in the nation to institute a heading ban.
On Thursday, Shipley hosted a concussion education program featuring, among others, SLI executive director Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler whose career ended after getting slammed during a match in 2003. He also wrote a book, Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis, about concussions in football, that was turned into a documentary.
Shipley started looking at the issue last year because the number of injuries, particularly in younger players, had become "intense" as kids play sports year-round, said head of school Steve Piltch.
While there are protocols for treating other types of sports injuries, "we're only just getting to the same place with head injuries," Piltch said.
Nowinski's presentation included a video of his injury, a crushing blow during a WWE match. He said he forgot who he was, what day it was, and who was supposed to win. Though he had headaches and nausea, he wrestled five more weeks, until he started sleepwalking and became scared enough to get help.
"High school sports is not the peak of your lives," Nowinski said.
He explained how brains are injured and how hard it is to know if someone has a concussion. He stressed that symptoms need to be taken seriously and that if an athlete does not ask for help, teammates must step up.
"It's hard to take yourself out when you have a concussion. I get that," he said. So, "when you think someone has a concussion, you want to get them off the field."
Playing with repeated injuries can in rare cases lead to death, he said. It happened to the son of his college football coach.
SLI's research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy in professional athletes found that even younger players, such as a cocaptain of the University of Pennsylvania football team who died at 21, was found to have the Alzheimer's-like disease, Nowinski said.
Focus on other skills
At Shipley, officials said middle-school coaching will focus on footwork and other skills. If a child heads the ball, the coach will talk to the player.
"It's not going to be punitive, but we're going to make them aware of the policy, like a three-strike thing," said Dakota Carroll, the girls' varsity soccer coach, who also works with middle schoolers.
Shipley reached out to other schools in its league to join the ban, but they declined, said Duncan. He said he does not think it will put his team at a competitive disadvantage.
"We're going to play the way we play. They're going to play the way they play," he said. "It's only sixth to eighth grades."
Parents, he said, have been very supportive.
Middle schoolers were not in school yet Thursday, but some high school players who were at practice and then at the concussion conference were not sold on the new policy.
"I don't love the idea, and if it were me, I would be upset," said Hope Roehrs, 16, cocaptain of the varsity team. "Sometimes you need to head the ball, like into a goal."
Heading "is such a huge part of the soccer. It hurts the game in a way. But if that prevents serious concussions in the younger age group, then it's necessary," said Christina Piasecki, 16, also a cocaptain.
Merideth Maguire, 17, the third cocaptain, said last year that a senior "had a few bad headers" and "it messed up a lot of school, and kind of messed up her college process."
The girls have been wearing Triax Impact sensors in soft black headbands during practices. Shipley and SLI will monitor every athlete's hit count and review the data. They said they believe the number of times an athlete is hit in the head correlates with the risk of concussion.
The data will be used to provide real-time feedback and to understand what "normal" exposure is for an athlete by sport, sex, age, and position, according to the school. The sensors will also help coaches identify ways students can change their behavior to reduce the risk of concussion.
The Shipley soccer girls said so far, the devices were counting any movement, such as running or even being shaken when in storage boxes, as hits.
"Conceptually, it's a really valuable tool," said Maguire, "but we're not there yet."