Freya Holdaway is a prime example of what can happen when players suffer several concussions in football in a short time. The World Cup player and member of the Northern Ireland teams Crystal Palace and Arsenal suffered a total of three serious head injuries in 18 months. The damage to her health was so significant that she retired from football in 2020 at the age of 32.
Regular Seizures After the Second Concussion
Once she had experienced a second concussion in football, Holdaway had two seizures on the side of her brain where she headed the ball. Despite this, she played football again the next season and sustained a third concussion that ended her professional football days for good.
Holdaway recently recalled to a reporter the extreme importance placed on heading the ball during games and practices. She also remembers seeing stars after a few especially intense practice sessions and thinking that the league should not just accept it as normal. The year before she retired, a University of Glasgow study came out that demonstrated she was right to feel concerned.
What Did the Glasgow Study Show?
The landmark study of retired professional football players released in 2019 indicated that people who fit this demographic were 3.5 times more likely than the rest of the population to receive a diagnosis of degenerative neurocognitive disease. The University of Glasgow researchers indicated that concussions in football and repeated sub-concussive injuries were the most common causes of reduced cognitive and motor skills later in life among former professional footballers. Sub-concussive injuries are those that cause repetitive minor trauma to the brain that does not result in obvious symptoms at the time of injury.
Before the 2021 football season started, the English Football Association advised coaches and trainers that they should limit players to completing 10 or fewer higher force headers per week. The result has been an increased struggle between striking the perfect balance of preventing concussions in football without drastically changing the structure of the game. Practicing heading the ball with virtual reality (VR) could provide the answer that has eluded coaches and trainers until now.
Training for Football without Using a Ball
Rezzill, a software company based in the United Kingdom, has recently released a VR training game that enables footballers to practice their heading skills without a ball ever touching their head. They wear a virtual headset that delivers animated training drills designed by professional football coaches in the UK. Using the VR headset does not require players to be among a team or receive a pitch.
As the football comes near the head during a VR session, players time their hit and position their body just as they would in a real competition. Players can practice for as long as they would like without the worry of hitting the ball or another player’s head hard enough to cause a concussion in football.
Rezzill relied on research from Manchester Metropolitan University regarding the long-term effect of concussion and sub-concussive events on football players while developing its VR headset. Two well-known UK football players, Vincent Kompany and Thierry Henry, showed their support for the project by providing individual financial backing.
Michael Grey, who works as a rehabilitation neuroscientist at the University of East Anglia in the UK, also believes in the promise of the new Rezzill device. He recently spoke about the extensive amount of damage the human brain endures when subject to repeated sub-concussive injury. Because the potential damage goes far beyond that caused by a single concussion, Grey believes that football players practicing heading with a VR headset is a practice that is here to stay.