To be protected or to fit in?
That’s the question high school soccer players around the country are facing when stepping onto the soccer field, and interviews with coaches and players around the Northwest Conference show players lean toward the latter more often than not.
For the past decade, helmets have become a part of the gear found on the soccer fields. Full90, a San Diego-based company, introduced headgear designed to prevent head injuries in 2000. Since then players at all levels have tested it out.
The company claims it reduces the risk of concussion by 50 percent, and several studies have supported those claims to some extent.
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Multiple studies have found the headbands, which come in different models that range from $40 to $80 and cover either the whole head or part of it, reduce the risk of concussion, but the studies disagree as to how much.
The key finding is that the gear helps with head to head contact but not necessarily with head to ball contact seen in heading, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine stated and others have supported.
While that may be the case, Lynden Christian boys’ soccer player Liam Kroontje, who uses the full helmet model of the Full90, says it comes down to confidence.
“When I hit the ball with my head, I wouldn’t hurt, and it also just made me feel much more comfortable,” Kroontje said. “When I would wear the helmet, it would make feel much more comfortable and made me feel protected, more confident.”
Kroontje is one of few soccer players in the Northwest Conference that wears the headgear. He sustained multiple concussions over the course of several weeks, and the helmet served as a way to keep him on the field.
“After getting hit on the head, I was really aware and nervous that I was going to hit my head again,” he said. “It just made me really self aware of what’s around me. So like the ball, I was scared of the ball. I didn’t want it to hit me.”
While teammates don’t make fun of players who wear the gear, the stigma of playing in a helmet keeps many players away.
Less than a dozen players wear the helmet between the 13 varsity boys’ and girls’ soccer teams in the Northwest Conference, and the big reason comes down to looking the part of a player.
“You don’t want to look different than other players,” Burlington-Edison girls’ soccer coach Ryan Kuttel said in a phone interview. “You don’t want to stand out.”
Longtime player and now varsity coach at Meridian Terri Tigert couldn’t agree more and said it especially applies to girls’ soccer.
“Being a girl, you don’t like to stand out,” Tigert said in a phone interview. “Girls are self-conscious with a lot of things, so that definitely could be a factor.”
It may explain why no girls on the Trojans’ girls’ soccer team wore headgear last season, despite the school offering it for free and the coaches strongly encouraging it.
It also not very comfortable, Kuttel said.
“Generally players don’t like to wear it,” he said. “It’s sweaty, they slip around and you have to adjust them.”
Players may not have the option for much longer.
Kuttel believes the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the governing body for Washington state high school athletics, may require head protection within the next decade.
Some youth programs across the country have already started requiring it, and others soon may follow. Until then, the only thing that will squash the stigma is more players wearing it and that doesn’t seem to be imminent.
Additional reporting by Katie Heath