Friday, May 19, 2000

Does soccer make you stupid?

I knew there was a reason I didn't like soccer. I've hated the sport since I was a kid, and our phys-ed time would be spent in a grassy area between classrooms, running back and forth, kicking at the ball and each other's shins. At the time, I developed the very excellent strategy of always guarding the part of the field where the ball wasn't. This was before soccer was every child's favorite after-school obsession; nobody really much knew how to play, and the ball stayed close to the ground. I don't recall anybody impacting the ball with anything but their feet, which appears to have been a good thing: We're a smarter generation for not hitting things with our heads.

Or so opines a researcher who has tested the impact of soaring soccer balls on the heads of crash test dummies and determined that being struck by a hard sphere will hurt you--maybe even to the point of losing IQ points. This is a revelation to some folks, and many researchers disagree on the degree to which it hurts and whether it warrants any concern. Now, if the discussion were about, say, throwing books at children's heads, or toys, or small appliances, I think we could all agree that that might cause a dead brain cell or two or two thousand. But a soccer ball--well, we like soccer! Soccer is good! Soccer builds strong bodies and tough skulls! We need our soccer! So a hard heavy soccer ball cannot possibly bruise the brain! Shins, on the other hand, we guard like crazy.

I am not a soccer mom. My kids play on no teams at present; we're spending so much time trying to build up their brains that we have no time left over to knock them around. My daughter, who shows serious jock potential, did go to a soccer camp last summer, though. The ad said over and over again that it was for kids of all skill levels, her skill level being zip, but when we got there, all the kids had their little uniforms and shin guards on and had clearly been playing the game for a while. My girl had fun, and learned some skills, though they did not alas include a grasp of which goal you're supposed to kick it into to make points for your team. I don't think they worked extensively on heading the ball, thank goodness--her brain has enough problems as it is.

Some would say they should have worked on it a lot; the trouble with heading comes when it's done wrong. Hit the ball with your forehead, knees bent, and no harm shall come to you. Hit it with your head any old way, or worse still get hit by surprise, and we make no promises. The likelihood of kids executing this maneuver with patience and skill every time when they could just be going gonzo and whacking the thing seems slim. After all, soccer is the one place where you can hit things with your head without your mother telling you to cut that out. In fact, she may be cheering from the bleachers. There seem to be two safe options: Making the kids wear helmets, or just stopping the soccer madness right now. Switch those young developing brains to a safe sport. Like football.

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