Heading will still be allowed during matches, but banned in training the day before and after games. Football clubs are also being told to limit training exercises that involve repetitive heading to one session per week.
The new guidelines are being introduced following a consultation with 50 clubs across the professional men's and women's game in Scotland and following an Scottish Football Association (SFA) survey of clubs to gauge heading trends.
Heading has been an aspect of the game that has been analysed by health experts following concerns linking the practice to dementia and other illnesses. Glasgow University research published in 2019 showed former footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die from brain disease, with experts suggesting that repeated heading of the ball could be linked. Heading activity is now set to be monitored in training.
In 2020, the SFA limited heading in youth football, with a ban on headers in training for the under-12 age group. Scotland became the first country in the world to bring in concussion guidelines for all sports, with the "if in doubt, sit them out" campaign.
Others have since followed, with the FA in England introducing guidelines for clubs that limits players to ten high impact headers a week, during training.
The Scottish FA surveyed a number of SPFL and SWPL clubs to better understand heading practices within the professional game. A follow-up survey was conducted with managers and coaches, with more than 70 per cent supportive of heading guidelines being introduced. In a further recent survey of players carried out in conjunction with PFA Scotland, the majority of players (64 per cent) believed heading should be limited in training.
Ian Maxwell, Scottish FA chief executive, said: “The historic University of Glasgow study (FIELD), which found an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in retired professional footballers, compared to a matched population control group, has been a catalyst for a radical rethink of football guidance, starting in the youth game with the introduction of the heading guidelines children between six and 17 in 2020.
“The Scottish FA said at the time that this research should shape the thinking in the adult game, not just domestically, but across the world. I am grateful to everyone in the professional game – clubs, coaches and managers, and players – for contributing to the latest research which has culminated in these new guidelines.
“It is our intention that these guidelines will be embraced and implemented with immediate effect. The publishing of today’s guidelines represents our ongoing commitment to player welfare.”
Dr John MacLean, an SFA doctor who was involved in the 2019 study, said: "“It is important to reiterate that while the FIELD study was not designed to identify the causes of this increased risk, both head injury and heading have been suggested as possible contributing factors to neurodegenerative disease.
“While the research continues to develop, what we already know about heading and its effects on the brain suggests that there is measurable memory impairment lasting 24-48 hours following a series of headers, and that brain related proteins can be detected in blood samples for a short time after heading. Brain scan changes have also been reported in footballers that may be linked to heading. Therefore the goal is to reduce any potential cumulative effect of heading by reducing the overall exposure to heading in training.”
Luke Griggs, interim chief executive at brain injury charity Headway, said: “The new guidelines are a positive step forwards in terms of how football protects the brain health of players. Football has traditionally been fearful of change, so this willingness to evolve protocols and adapt to emerging research is a welcome development."
A number of high-profile former footballers have died from dementia in recent years, including former Celtic captain Billy McNeill, and former England World Cup winner and Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton.
Andy Gould, the SFA's chief football officer, said the latest research had been "invaluable in understanding the extent of heading load within the training environment".
He said: "I am grateful to the clubs, managers and players for providing us with the information and perspectives required to facilitate an informed and data-driven discussion which has culminated in the publication of guidelines designed to protect the safety and wellbeing of our players."