Women may not head the ball as much as men during a game of football but, says England’s No1 goalscorer Kelly Smith, that does not mean they should be excluded from research that is linking dementia with frequent heading. Sarah Shephard listens as Smith offers experiences from her stellar career
Kelly Smith may have just retired after a glittering career with Arsenal and England, but she is becoming increasingly aware of the risk associated with longevity that are starting to emerge in the men’s game. Only this week scientists announced findings of research that suggest a potential link between professional football and long-term brain damage; specifically, that repeated heading of the ball could cause players to be more at risk of developing dementia in later life.
Until now it has been filed away as a ‘men’s thing’, with male footballers the focus of ongoing research. But Smith says female players should not be ignored. She said: “I’d definitely like to see more research done on the effect of heading the ball on female footballers to see if there is any correlation between the two [male and female]. It’ll take a good few years to get the data, but it would be particularly interesting to look at the game at international level – who heads the ball the most? Who suffers most from heading the ball? I think that’d be a good idea.”
Smith became England’s first professional female footballer when she joined the New Jersey Lady Stallions in the United States in 1999. By the time the striker called time on her career in January at the age of 38, she had played in six major international tournaments, become England’s record scorer with 46 goals and won countless trophies at club level with Arsenal. Over the course of her career, Smith says that footballs have changed to become “lighter and more dynamic”, but adds: “It’s still the case that if you head the ball with the wrong part of your head, which is easily done, it will hurt.
“A few times in training I’ve had it where a ball’s come across and I’ve headed it wrong and for 10 to 15 seconds you’re seeing little stars. I’m not aware that I’ve suffered from any kind of concussion during my career, though – I think the worst head injury I had was actually a black eye from an elbow while I was playing in America.”
Smith says that while she never felt wary of heading the ball when she was playing, there were others who felt differently. “Some players I’ve played with absolutely hated heading the ball. They’d jump up and pretend they were going for it, knowing damned well they weren’t going to win it. They just didn’t like the way it made their head feel.”
Now into the next stage of her career – developing as a coach at Arsenal – Smith says heading the ball isn’t a main focus of any regular training sessions. “We’d never really do a heading session. Obviously if players aren’t jumping for the ball in games you address it and tell them what they should be doing, but we’d never specifically do a session on heading the ball.”
She attributes this to the way the game is played now, with the ball spending more time on the floor than in the air. “The game used to involve a lot of long balls from back to front, meaning you’re expecting your defenders to get up and head the ball constantly throughout the game. But now a lot of the game is played on the floor. Your two centre-halves and the holding midfielder are probably the main positions where players might be heading the ball repeatedly from a goalkeeper’s kick. But in terms of other positions the ball just isn’t up in the air that much.
“Even when I was playing, unless we weren’t challenging for the ball in the air during games, or we were losing a lot of headers, then we wouldn’t specifically work on headers in training.”
Smith does have one memory of spending a prolonged period of time heading the ball, though. It’s from her time playing in America when her team were repeatedly second best in aerial challenges, prompting the manager to dedicate a whole hour to improving that side of their game. “He’d literally just kick the ball up in the air and you’d have to win your individual header. That hour was seen as a punishment, though, because we weren’t doing it in a game. Otherwise, I’ve never actually done a session to practise heading – maybe as a kid you’d work on your technique. But once you’re into your teenage years you’ve already got it so there’s no need.”
Sports-related research as a whole has been male-focused historically, meaning there is limited data around all sorts of issues. The situation is no different when it comes to head injuries in football, with just a handful of studies done examining how gender comes into play. One, done in 2005 examined all head injuries from six years of Fifa competitions (from 1998 to 2004) and found there was “a higher rate of head injury, a different spectrum of injury and different mechanism of injury in female compared with male footballers”.
This is backed up by another study from Fifa’s Medical Assessment and Research Centre in 2007, which analysed seven international tournaments and concluded that “head injuries, and especially concussions, were more common in the women’s than in the men’s tournaments”.
The early indicators are that head injuries are just as much of an issue in women’s football as in men’s. As the experts have noted, further research is needed to cast more light on this subject. But as Smith says, female footballers must be afforded the same treatment and care as their male counterparts. It is crucial not only to the health of current and former players, but also to the future of the women’s game.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Shephard is features editor at Sport magazine, where she has worked since October 2006, joining the staff initially as a writer. In December 2012 she was named Writer of the Year at the UTV Media Awards. The following year she ghosted the autobiography of British gymnast, Louis Smith. Her second book, Kicking Off: How Women in Sport are Changing the Game, was published by Bloomsbury on March 10 2016. Sarah’s latest articles