Heading Pro, a specially designed football that is meant to keep players safe when heading the ball, is the brainchild of former Socceroo and current Western Sydney W-League coach Dean Heffernan and close friend Andrew Head, a specialist in the product development of footballs.
A 2019 study by the University of Glasgow revealed that former professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from dementia, had a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s'.
This, the researchers concluded, was because of the damage to the brain due to repeated heading of the football over a long period of time. It is estimated a footballer can head a ball 6-10 times per game.
This research covered professional footballers, who are better trained than most at heading a football. The average park footballer wouldn't be expected to have the same level of skill as a professional and thus the risk of damage from heading a ball is greater in theory.
"While most injuries occur through player to player contact, it can also happen due to poor technique and timing," explains Heffernan, who played over 250 senior games in a career spanning 17 years. "With a lightweight ball you reduce the risk of the sub concussive impacts for players when heading a normal ball, and you give them confidence in their heading technique and timing when the moment arrives in a game to head the ball."
Head has a passion for providing players and coaches with the right tools to maximise their footballing potential. His innovation and ability to understand the modern needs of footballers saw him forge a partnership with Heffernan.
“I’m always looking at ways we can help improve development for players and the game in general, so when the news of potential injuries relating to heading the ball started to come up it got me thinking.
"Dean approached me with his concerns and experiences at professional level, we set about seeing what we could come up with to make a difference. With plenty of testing and two years later, Heading Pro was born.”
The Heading Pro ball developed by Heffernan and Head has been supported by the medical profession with Dr Kerry Peek, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and an accredited coach of Australian Strength and Conditioning Association, backing the safety features of the ball which still has the playability of a normal soccer ball even though it is up to 40% lighter and has a softer outer surface.
"Our research has shown that the Heading-Pro ball can reduce head acceleration by almost 50% in youth players when compared to a IFAB regulated match ball," says Dr Peek.
Football Federation Australia has publicly stated it will review its own policies around heading the ball after three British associations banned the skill from being practised at training by junior players to prevent concussions.
However Dr Peek believes better training and safer balls are the best way to go about making heading the ball safer.
"A ban is a very reactionary approach to the current literature or publications that are out. I think we actually need to be sensible, and sensibly debate this," she said. "One of them is making sure they have really good technique so that we teach heading with low-pressure balls, soft balls, so that they learn to activate their neck, and so they can then reduce the amount if head acceleration - but this has to be taught before they start heading a ball.
“We hope that by engaging with players, coaches and clubs we can implement a number of low risk strategies which will potentially benefit millions of players worldwide.
“These strategies include adding neck exercises to current injury reduction exercise programs (such as the FIFA 11+ and FIFA 11+ kids) as well as teaching good heading technique using a lighter ball."
FFA's National Football Curriculum also suggests using softer balls, especially when teaching juniors, and it seems a number of community clubs are now looking at purchasing safer balls for players from juniors right through to seniors.
Jimmy Radiic, a coach at a local club in Campbelltown, admits times have changed and clubs have a duty of care to players.
"We didn't know any better when I was growing up, we would just head the ball without any thought. Those old balls were very heavy especially in the wet. We as coaches and clubs have a duty of care to players and their families to keep them safe.
"A lighter ball that reduces the risk of head injury especially in the later years, is a no brainer, excuse the pun."