Caution: Soccer Ahead

It is one of the safest sports a high school can offer, but that doesn’t mean soccer is risk free. Tipping goals and lower leg injuries still happen far too often.

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled The Athletic Administrator’s Scheduling Book, published by LRP Publications, in Horsham, Pa.

Athletic Management, 13.4, June/July 2001,

Soccer is the world’s most popular sport. And Americans are joining the rest of the world in embracing this game. In fact, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) reports that 288 new school teams were formed in 2000 alone.

Although it may seem like a game with little risk, it has its share of hazards. From often overlooked protective equipment to potentially deadly unanchored goals, there is much to consider about soccer risk management.

Tipping Goals
The greatest risk in soccer involves portable goals tipping over. At least 21 of these incidents have resulted in deaths.

In Washington, a school left a regulation soccer goal on a field that was rented to a youth football team. The goal was not anchored, nor did it have warning labels. A young boy jumped and grabbed the crossbar to take a few “Tarzan” swings. The goal tipped over striking the boy’s head and causing serious injury. The lawsuit that followed was settled out of court, primarily because the athletic administration failed to meet the suggested guidelines published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) several years ago.

Every athletic program owning a soccer goal must have a copy of the CPSC’s “Guidelines for Movable Soccer Goal Safety” on hand, and these guidelines must be reviewed with your coaches annually. In brief, the guidelines explain that all portable soccer goals should be anchored and also have appropriate warning labels.

When it comes to stationary goals, Dr. David H. Janda, Director of the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine, recommends padded ones, although they are not the present standard. Others have speculated, however, that padded goals could keep more balls in front of the goal mouth and increase the potential for collisions between players and posts.

And under no circumstances should field hockey, floor hockey, or team handball goals be used in lieu of soccer goals. They are much lighter than soccer goals and are difficult to anchor, leaving them very susceptible to tipping.

Player Equipment
The three most important pieces of player equipment include shoes, shin guards, and mouthguards. For all three, make sure you buy from only reputable dealers, and that all your equipment is in good condition.

As 68 percent of soccer injuries occur to the lower extremities, appropriate footwear is important. Poorly designed or incorrectly fitted shoes are often cited as reasons for foot and ankle problems.

Shin guards worn inside the stockings have reduced the severity of blows to the shin. Although they can’t prevent all tibia related injures, they provide a good source of protection.

Currently, there are no standards for shin guards, but the American Society for Testing and Materials is trying to establish shin guard standardization. According to the group, “It is possible that some shin guards on the market may actually increase the risk of injury by allowing a person to believe they are protected [and therefore take more chances] while in fact, the shin guard is not effective in offering protection to the user.”

The mouthguard issue is an easy one. They must be worn by all athletes at all practices and contests.

The use of helmets for keepers continues to be a question mark. To date there is no agreement as to its effect on the game. However, some youth leagues are choosing to use them as an extra safety measure.

Soccer Skills
While the majority of soccer skills involve actions that are very safe for the body—running and kicking—two skills warrant extra attention. These include heading the ball and slide tackles.

The skill of heading is an accepted part of the game. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests, however, that coaches must emphasize to players that they should avoid using the head when another part of the body could achieve the same purpose. It also states that heading should be avoided until middle school.

Studies continue on this issue, but several points are clear:

• Heading should be taught in a progressive and correct manner.

• Use deflated balls for early heading practice.

• Avoid practicing with heavy, wet leather balls.

• De-emphasize heading for beginners.

Slide tackling is another acceptable skill, but used by an inexperienced, untrained player, it can be dangerous to the user and his or her opponent. This skill must be practiced in non-competitive situations. Novice players should not perform this skill.

Safe Spaces
Fields and facilities should be checked regularly. In addition to making sure that movable or portable goals have been anchored, look for debris, holes, and other hazards before each use of the field. Twenty-five percent of injuries are related to the playing surface.

Also, use flexible corner flags or rubber boundary cones. These are less likely to cause hazardous collisions.

Maintain “buffer” (safety) zones around the field. Balls can hit spectators and players can run into walls and trees. Spectators should be a minimum of five yards back from the sideline. And during practice, spread out those multi-ball drills to avoid the chance of errant balls tripping unsuspecting players.

At a youth tournament in New England, for example, dozens of fields were jammed close together for the convenience of spectators. The end line of one field was less than 10 yards from the next field’s end line. As a parent moved through this space between fields, an errant shot struck her. Falling, she hit her head on a post. She continues to have memory problems.

Additional Reminders
These final suggestions are relevant to all sports, including soccer, and should be part of any sport’s risk management plan:

• Teach players how to fall.

• Require physical examinations.

• Review training rules and inform your players of the potential dangers of participation. Use informed consent forms that are signed by player and parents.

• Supervision is always a major element of risk management. Place yourself in the best position to control as many participants as possible.

• Have an emergency plan, which includes competent medical personnel.

• Have a game day crowd control plan. This includes erecting barriers and using certified officials.

• Consider using lightning detectors. Why do golf courses use this device, yet most athletic departments do not?

• Keep records of everything, such as practice plans, purchase orders, and consent forms.

• Use a whistle. It’s the cheapest risk management tool in sports.

• Continue to educate yourself. Attend clinics and read.

As with all sports, the best risk management technique for soccer is proper teaching of the skills and spirit of the game. When student-athletes understand and respect the rules, injuries are less likely.

To get a copy of “Guidelines for Movable Soccer Goal Safety,” call the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in Washington, D.C., at (800) 638-2772 or (301) 504-0051.

For more information on topics mentioned in this article, please visit our Web site at

• To read more about the risks of heading the ball, please type “header” in the search window.

• For a look at an article on buffer zones, type “close quarters” in the search window.

• More information on consent forms can be found by typing “consent” in the search window.