After suffering five concussions in six years, University of Miami soccer standout Ashley Flinn decided to play her senior season wearing a protective headband.
Everything went well until the 14th game of this past season at Notre Dame, when a kicked ball struck Flinn on the side of the head, where there is not as much padding. It caused her sixth concussion.
“I don’t know if it hit the headband or not,” said Flinn.
Flinn, 21, is now retired from soccer. She was a rising star as a junior, scoring 10 goals and ranking seventh in perhaps the nation’s best conference, the ACC. But after a concussion in the spring, Flinn acknowledged she was a lot less aggressive this past season, avoiding headers and collisions.
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It may surprise some, but soccer is the most dangerous high school sport for girls in terms of concussion rates, according to research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The only sport — boys or girls — that has a higher rate for traumatic brain injury is football.
Despite the dangers, few teams wear protective headgear in soccer. Other than a rare case such as Flinn, Division I college teams at Florida International University and the University of Miami do not wear such gear. Nor do local Division II teams Nova Southeastern and Barry.
But at least one local high school is taking the lead in the matter. The girls’ soccer team at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale is wearing the gear this season, said head coach Carlos Giron.
“We are the first ones in Florida to wear the headbands,” said Giron, who has led his team to 13 state titles. “I think the [Florida High School Activities Association] will make all girls wear them eventually, so we decided to do it now.
“I think it gives the girls a little more safety.”
Flinn said she found the gear, which is thicker than a normal headband, “annoying” initially.
“I hated it at first,” she said. “It took about a week to get used to it, but after that I forgot it was there.”
According to the manufacturer, Storelli, the quarter-inch thick headbands, which cost $60 each, are made of the same foam “used in combat-grade military helmet liners.’’
Yet, Flinn said, most soccer players — even her Miami teammates who saw what she went through with concussions — feel bulletproof and don’t wear the headbands.
Perhaps the Aquinas girls will start a trend. Connor Lhota, a junior forward at Aquinas, said she likes wearing the gear.
“I feel safer when I go up to head a ball,” she said. “Sometimes you butt heads or someone elbows you in the head. At least with the headband, you have some padding to absorb the shock.”
A 2006 study conducted by McGill University in Montreal found that soccer players who wear protective headgear suffer almost half as many concussions as those who don’t. The study also found that female players were at more risk than their male counterparts.
In addition, the study showed that 80 percent of athletes who had concussions did not realize they had suffered a traumatic brain injury, especially if they had not lost consciousness.
But while the McGill study favored protective headgear, a 2010 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found the evidence inconclusive. The U.S. Soccer Federation also did not side with McGill.
Dr. C.J. Abraham, billed as the inventor of the ForceField Headband, said no gear can eliminate concussions.
“Our protective headgear, like all the others, is designed to significantly reduce the severity of the impact,” he said on forcefieldheadbands.com. “It is never advisable to play with an existing brain injury in a contact sport without being properly evaluated by a medical specialist experienced in brain injuries.
“Do not play injured. Your brain is the most important organ in your body. Preserve and protect your quality of life.”
Barry University’s Kathy Ludwig, who has a doctorate in physical education and has conducted extensive research on soccer concussions, said the injuries do not come from heading the ball. They most commonly are the result of head-to-head or elbow-to-head collisions and when players’ heads hit the ground.
“Yes, I think the idea of wearing headgear can be protective,” Ludwig said. “For players who have had concussions, I definitely recommend it.”
Ludwig said the headgear may offend soccer purists who love the notion in which a poor kid with no shoes and just a rag-tag ball can still enjoy the game without all that padding.
But NSU women’s soccer coach Michael Goodrich said the sport has moved past such romanticism.
“Whatever will mitigate injuries,” said Goodrich, who will not prevent any player on his team from wearing the headbands. “If these devices are proven to help, most of us would say, ‘Great, we’re all for them.’
“More research needs to be done. But I think you are starting to see them at the youth level. I think this is something that will work its way from the bottom on up instead of top down.”