Ben Mee: learning heading before your teenage years seems pointless

I hate to think how many headers I have won or stray arms to the face I have had

Burnley centre back Ben Mee receives treatment for a head injury against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Photograph: Getty Images

Burnley centre back Ben Mee receives treatment for a head injury against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Without my desire to stick my head in places it would rather not be, I would not have a career. I happily throw mine in the way of shots and crosses in the hope of securing an extra Premier League point, but I do wonder at what cost.

I am in my 13th season as a professional footballer, not to mention the years of playing Sunday league and in the Manchester City academy, so I hate to think how many headers I have won or stray arms to the face I have had. The latest was at Selhurst Park a couple of weeks ago when Jordan Ayew caught me in a sweet spot on the jaw, leaving me on the ground unconscious for about two seconds. I came round with medical staff sprinting towards me.

I must be a terrible patient at the best of times but being treated mid-match makes me worse. I never want to miss a minute – I would happily carry on wrapped in bandages if it meant helping the team. It is my character to continue regardless of whatever injury I might have suffered. Even with the medics around me at Palace, asking me not to move, I was insistent I could carry on, ignoring my health because that is the mentality I have.

Thousands of footballers will have felt the same: thinking they can carry on despite suffering a head injury. I felt fine but the medics said it looked from the monitor as if I had lost consciousness. Despite my protestations and the fact I could answer all the questions asked of me about where I was, the scoreline and how many minutes had gone, I was strapped to a stretcher with my head and neck in a brace and accepted those around me had more interest in my wellbeing than I did.

During my career I have suffered two known concussions. I remember, if that is the right word in the circumstance, of one occasion with Burnley at Peterborough where I was concussed, got checked out and sent back on to finish the game. I did not know where I was and muscle memory got me through to the end. I hate to think what impact that had on me at the time and longer term.

Thankfully, things have improved since and now we have concussions substitutions and we are obliged to go through concussion protocols. After my head injury at Palace, I underwent rigorous testing to ensure I was back to 100 per cent. Before the season we are asked a series of questions and these are repeated to a player undergoing the protocols to make sure their answers tally. Once these were passed, I spent three days testing myself on the exercise bike, gradually increasing cardiac output each day to prove I had no adverse reactions and was fit to train on Thursday.

The rules meant I had to miss a midweek match against Fulham, which is frustrating for any player. No one wants to be absent, and I hate watching from the stands, but I need to accept it was for the greater good.

I am 31, I will retire from my profession while my children are still young. I need to be healthy in the long term for their sake, which is my greatest concern. I have spoken to the club doctor in the past about the impact the game has had on my head and will have my brain scanned once I have quit playing to see whether the sport I love has had any impact. I have never had a brain scan but it will be important.

The research being done into why players down the years have developed Alzheimer’s and dementia after retirement is imperative. It will not just be past generations who will develop such diseases – players from our era will, almost certainly, end up with similar issues and it is essential we fully understand the potential links. Families of former footballers, including relatives of Jeff Astle, have done fantastic work in raising the issues in this area. Closer to home, seven of Burnley’s title-winning side from 1960 ended up with dementia and we have a duty to all these people to get to the root cause.

Would I let my kids start heading the ball at the same age I did? No, I do not see the point. Heading is a skill at the highest level of the game but learning it before your teenage years seems pointless. The younger years should be spent focusing on the technical aspects rather than those defensive attributes I have relied upon in my career.

I am not saying that heading should be taken out of the game – of course it should not. It is a key part of the sport we all love, but it is important as individuals and collectively we accept the impact repetitive heading can have. If we do not know the facts, then things will never improve. - Guardian

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