Steve Piltch's Letter about Shipley's Policy Change

Steve Piltch
Dear Shipley Families:

At Shipley we take great pride in asking the questions and taking the actions necessary to deal with complex issues and do what is in our students’ best interest. Usually this speaks to developing and supplementing program, but sometimes this means changing something that has been accepted by people in the community, potentially for generations…this is one of those instances.

Over the past few years we have been looking into the growing challenges of the impact of concussions in our children’s lives. Along the way, we have forwarded you articles about the issues (see below for a few others), brought in spokespeople such as Chris Nowinski, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Sports Legacy Institute (a non-profit organization dedicated to solving the sports concussion crisis through education, policy, and research), created baseline testing procedures for all of our Upper School students, and adopted a very stringent return to play and academic work protocol. While these approaches have increased our awareness of and response to injuries that have occurred, we think we must take proactive action to prevent or at least minimize the occurrence of concussions.

We believe we can make significant progress by prohibiting the heading of soccer balls by Middle School students. Today’s data strongly indicate that head hits for Middle Schoolers have much more impact than once believed and that too often these players have not learned to head the ball correctly, that their necks, shoulders, and backs are not well enough developed to do the task properly, and that recurring use of heading increases the incidence of short term and long term problems. And, even for those who do know how to head the ball, the prospect of head injuries is increased by force and physical contact that often occurs when the players go up in the air and compete to head a ball.

Stefan Fatsis captures the essence of the issues in his article, “Don’t Use Your Heads, Kids: Why children shouldn’t be allowed to head a soccer ball.” The article is most compelling and is a worthwhile read: Don’t Use Your Heads, Kids.

Although this has long been true, the realization that hits to the head impact younger kids much more seriously than once believed (See this link) and the death of Patrick Grange, a former professional soccer player, at the age of 29 (from a degenerative motor-neuron disease likely related to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) brought things home in an intense and powerful way. We recently learned that he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the deterioration of the brain which can cause memory problems, depression, and, in the extreme, dementia and death. We want to minimize the chances that such a thing will happen to someone else. (Click here for the link to a report on Grange’s situation and other short videos on similar issues.)

While we hope the risk of long-term consequences for soccer players who play only in middle or high school is low, the risk appears to be correlated with career length and cumulative exposure. At this point in a young athlete’s career, we cannot predict which of our athletes will go on to success (and therefore longer careers) in contact sports, and the available evidence supports postponing the introduction of repetitive brain trauma. 

Working in conjunction with Chris Nowinski, Dr. Robert Cantu (SLI medical director and concussion expert), Dr. Tom Drake (a Shipley parent and specialist in pediatric rehabilitation) and other experts, we have made the decision to alter our Middle School soccer program so that our Middle School athletes will not be allowed to head the ball in games. We recognize that this will be a challenge, and we will be working with other schools to see if they will follow suit. Although this could be met with some consternation in the beginning, we are confident that it will be in the best interest of our students.

In an effort to maximize the chance of them developing the skills over time, our coaches, Thom Schauerman and Dakota Carroll, are working with Chris Nowinski, Dr. Drake, and others to develop protocols for teaching heading while integrating the appropriate strengthening exercises and skill sets. Once developed, they will be working with all of our coaches and players on how to implement these techniques correctly during practices and games. Once the protocol is developed, we will be using lighter balls in practice to teach the skill.

In addition we are looking at the prospect of tracking the impact of repeated heading experience for our soccer players through the use of different monitoring devices. We will keep you abreast of our findings.

While we know that this decision will not completely prevent concussions, we feel it will improve things for everyone. And though other schools and programs may not go this way now, many will follow suit quickly. In fact, some travel teams and schools across the country have already enacted similar policies. Some soccer experts believe that delaying the introduction of headers will allow for a greater focus and development of foot skills, which many believe is more closely correlated with future success.

At the same time, we are looking at developing procedures and protocols to minimize chances that our students will get concussions in other sports as well. For example, our basketball coaches will be working to develop the best way for our players to learn to take a charge, and our lacrosse coaches will teach the proper technique for checking people. Of course, we will also look to make sure that our lacrosse players are using the best helmets possible to fight concussions. If you have any suggestions about other related issues that you would like us to investigate, please let us know.
We at Shipley are particularly excited to be working with Chris, Dr. Cantu, Dr. Drake, and others as we strive to do what is in our children’s best interests. We will update you on a regular basis on the progress we are making, and we will be looking for other ways to help minimize the chances of long term issues for our students. If you have any questions, please let me know. In fairly short order, we will be sending you our policy that corresponds with this letter. And, listed below is a series of articles and books related to this particular discussion.

Thanks for your support.
Steven S. Piltch
Head of School

Strand, S., Lechuga, D., Zachariah, T., & Beaulieu, K. (2014). Relative Risk for Concussions in Young Female Soccer Players. Applied Neuropsychology: Child, (ahead-of-print), 1-7.
Cantu, R.C. (2012) Concussions and our Kids.
Dezman, Z. D., Ledet, E. H., & Kerr, H. A. (2013). Neck Strength Imbalance Correlates With Increased Head Acceleration in Soccer Heading. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach5(4), 320-326.
Kirkendall, D. T., Jordan, S. E., & Garrett, W. E. (2001). Heading and head injuries in soccer. Sports medicine31(5), 369-386.
O’Kane, J. W., Spieker, A., Levy, M. R., Neradilek, M., Polissar, N. L., & Schiff, M. A. (2014). Concussion among female middle-school soccer players. JAMA pediatrics.
Hanson, E., Stracciolini, A., Mannix, R., & Meehan, W. P. (2014). Management and Prevention of Sport-Related Concussion. Clinical pediatrics, 0009922813518429.
Koerte, I. K., Ertl-Wagner, B., Reiser, M., Zafonte, R., & Shenton, M. E. (2012). White matter integrity in the brains of professional soccer players without a symptomatic concussion. JAMA308(18), 1859-1861. 
Lipton, M. L., Kim, N., Zimmerman, M. E., Kim, M., Stewart, W. F., Branch, C. A., & Lipton, R. B. (2013). Soccer heading is associated with white matter microstructural and cognitive abnormalities. Radiology268(3), 850-857.
Nowinski, C. (2012). Head Games.
Slobounov, S. M., & Sebastianelli, W. J. (Eds). (2104). Concussions in Athletics: From Brain to Behavior.New York: Springer.
Kirkwood, M. W., & Yeates, K. O. (Eds.). (2013). Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in Children and Adolescents: From Basic Science to Clinical Management. Guilford Press.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.