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Headers to be restricted for young soccer players

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Young soccer players will be forbidden from heading the ball during practices and games, under new rules handed down by U.S. Soccer.

For the sake of safety and to protect against concussions, children under age 10 won't be allowed to use their heads during practices or games. Kids ages 11-13 will be allowed to practice headers, but they will still be off limits during games.

"I do get concerned about her heading the ball because she's very enthusiastic about the sport," said Ann Kierl, whose daughter plays on a team of girls ages 11-14. "I don't want my daughter to be injured and I'm glad other people are looking at the coaches and they're watching out for the players."

But there are many people who are confused and even upset at the new guidelines, which Oklahoma Soccer Association's technical director says came as a bit of a surprise to the organization.

Kurt Luitwieler says he's telling his parents, coaches and players to wait for more details on rules he says are technically "strongly recommended" on a national level. He says there may be some leeway on adoption and enforcement on the local levels.

The rules are to take effect Jan. 1.

"As a coach, I'm willing to do whatever U.S. Soccer wants me to do," said Ike Emegano, who coaches at the North Oklahoma City Soccer Club. "I'm not a big fan of it, but I'm willing to adapt."

Emegano says he's worried about the big picture of American soccer, as it tries to keep up with the other international powers.

"Overall that's the end goal for us to be competitive in the World Cup," he said. "With these rules I feel like it might be setting us back just a little bit."

Chris Wright, whose two sons play soccer, says he's not so worried about the delay in headers setting his boys back. But he doesn't see a need for tighter rules on players using their heads.

"It seemed a little ridiculous, a little over-the-top, they're doing something to be overprotective," he said. "Pretty much every sport you play to be competitive, there's a risk involved."

Wright says he rarely sees heads collide at a young age, something the Oklahoma Soccer Association agrees with.

The organizations technical director says he doubts the rules will change the way they play.

Dr. Michael Kiehn, who works at a local sports medicine clinic, says he doesn't see soccer players come down with concussions very often.

"I don't know if it's necessarily the most dangerous part of the sport but I think it's just in the age and time we're at now where concussions are really at the forefront," he said. "I think it's fine. They're trying to protect the kids and the future of the game."

But Kiehn says he's never been worried about his own daughter, who plays the sport.

"I'm much more worried about her tearing her ACL than getting a concussion in soccer," he said. "Usually it's lower extremity injuries because it's a lower extremity sport so a concussion is not the most common thing to see."

Still, Kiehn says, it's good to remind parents, coaches and players that concussions can be serious and need to be treated properly. It's important to make sure a player's symptoms fully resolve before he or she returns to the field.

In fact, it's one of the more overlooked new concussion rules that the Oklahoma Soccer Association is happiest with: allowing kids to come off the field for a concussion diagnosis without their coaches losing a sub.

Luitwieler says it is a proactive step to make sure the sports older players are protected.