Why is women’s soccer telling its injured players to use their heads… literally?

I smashed my thumb with a hammer recently. It hurt.

It hurt a lot.

And do you want to know what I learned from my experience?

Hammers are unforgiving, and I don’t want to do that ever again. The pain felt was beyond words – at least the non-expletive kind.

(Note to Self: protect injured thumb from contacting anything and everything for the next few weeks, including winds above 3 mph, flying ladybugs, and envelopes lying on the desk. Failure to do so will result in excruciating pain, aggravation of injury, and flashing stars to appear in periphery.)

In this day and age of modern medicine, with so much research being done explaining the impact of repeated injuries, in particular head injuries, a story was recently published explaining the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) concussion protocol which is both frightening and nauseating.

Apparently the NWSL’s players are required to take an ImPact test (computerized concussion assessment exam) prior to each season to establish baseline results, and then, in the event a concussion is suffered by one of its players, the league requires the player to repeat the test at one-week intervals until the results show the player reached their pre-concussion performance level. This protocol (or similar derivative) seems to be fairly standard practice among professional sports, with each sport defining its own “Return To Play” Protocol based upon the mechanism of injury and independent medical advice.

Sounds good, right?

No harm, no foul?

Well, hold onto your soccer balls, friends, the NWSL is about to be red-carded right off the pitch of healing, logic, and reason.

As phase two of recovery, the NWSL requires once a player has successfully demonstrated cognitive clarity equal to their pre-concussion results by way of the ImPact test, the player is required to hit the ball with their head over and over and over again – 45 times over three days to be exact – just to ensure they’re really recovered.

Get that?

“We’re so glad your concussed brain is feeling better, now go bang your head against an inflated soccer ball forty-five times so we can all be sure it took.”


According to Sky Blue FC player Kelly Conheeney:

Day 1, you are to head the ball 8 yards away—five times forward, five times on the right, five times on the left…

Day 2, you are now 18 yards away [from the ball], and the same procedure follows: five times forward, fives times on the right, fives times on the left.

Day 3, you are to stand 30 yards away and a trainer is supposed to kick the ball for you to head it five times forward, five times left, five times right …

It’s absurd—it’s way too many consecutive headers. How long can you last? Seriously.

As frame of reference for those non-soccer lovers out there, I started playing soccer when I was six years old and continued through college, I sincerely doubt I’ve hit 45 headers in my entire life.

Many of the NWSL’s players interviewed opine the reason for this seemingly off-kilter treatment path is attributed to the lack of independent medical professionals associated with the league. By contrast, if a player suffers a concussion in the National Football League, he must be cleared both by a team physician and an independent physician (as part of the NFL’s ‘Return to Play’ protocol) prior to stepping foot back on the field. Perhaps the NWSL should take note.

In recent years, studies have continued to assess the connection between multiple concussions and poor quality of life, with some even connecting the dots leading to early onset mental illness like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. There was even an article published in the Journal of Neurology back in February 2017 explaining  that soccer players who frequently head the ball run a significantly higher risk of concussion symptoms than who do not head the ball.

The irony here (or perhaps insanity is a better description) is that conventional wisdom dictates the best medicine for an injury is rest; that, and avoiding any activity which would aggravate the affected area. Studies have also shown the dangers in multiple, and even co-morbid, concussions. Most professional sports, like the NFL, are heeding the medical advice and taking greater, and even more responsible steps, in protecting their players.

Then there’s the NWSL, which has elected to take the opposite approach: demanding proof of recovery through 45 re-enactments of the very trauma which necessitated it in the first place.

So much for wisdom.

For all those concerned, my thumb is feeling much better today. Think I’ll test it out, just to be sure.

Where’s my hammer?