OHIO — Maria Copfer was working on her balance for more than a week. Struggling to stabilize was one of the lingering symptoms of her concussion.

What You Need To Know

  • In recent years, there’s been an increased emphasis on preventing concussions in high school football, but the serious head injury is also prevalent in soccer

  • Girls’ soccer has the second highest rate of concussions after football

  • In 2016, U.S. Soccer implemented new rules surrounding heading to improve head safety in youth athletes

“It’s gotten better," she said. "When we first did the test the day after, I could like barely balance on two feet."

The 17-year-old goalkeeper has played soccer for 12 years, and until recently she never had the serious head injury.

“So, it’s always been a worry, but first one senior year of high school, I'm pretty lucky," she said.

Earlier this month, she collided with a player on the opposing team during a game when going for a save.

She didn’t admit how hurt she was until after the game was over.

“I lied to my trainers, and I deeply regret it," she said. "I probably should have come off the field."

Copfer is a senior at Avon Lake High School and met with one of the school’s athletic trainers for several return-to-play sessions.

She went through different drills to test if she was ready to safely return to the field.

She's on her way to full recovery but recalled how she felt for several days after her concussion.

“Really foggy and dazed and like confused, mainly," she said. "But like right after the hit, I felt fine until I stopped playing and then I started not to feel OK."

In Jan. 2016, U.S. Soccer implemented new rules to improve head safety and prevent concussions.

Heading is no longer allowed during practice or in a game for players 10 and younger. Heading is a soccer technique where a player hits the ball with their head toward another player, down the field or into the goal. The rule change also limited heading for 11 and 12-year-old players.

Cleveland Clinic Sports Medicine physician Dr. Marie Schaefer said it will be still be several years before hard data can support if there have been fewer concussions because of the rule change. She said anecdotally, she’s seeing fewer patients ages 10 to 12 with soccer related concussions.

“This is a population where brains are undergoing rapid development and also these athletes have not yet reached their physical maturity and appropriate skill level necessary to perform headers," Schaefer said.

Copfer was 11 when the guidelines changed.

“It’s a great change," she said. "Kids get hurt really easily. No one needs a concussion at a young age. It harms brain development. They’re too young to understand like the right concepts of where to hit the ball on your head. I still don’t understand it, and I’m 17-years-old."

Data from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study show concussions are more prevalent in girls' soccer when compared to boys' soccer.

In the 2021-2022 school year, concussions made up 10.6% of all boys’ soccer injuries and 21.9% of injuries in girls’ soccer.

Researchers are still working to understand why that difference exists, but Schaefer said header concussions occur most frequently after player-to-player contact, not head-to-ball contact.

“I’m going to take my head injuries a lot more serious," Copfer said. "I come in contact with very close calls to the head, cleats ending like right before my face and stuff. So, I definitely need to be more cautious about how I’m playing and when I need to come off and stuff."

Copfer is excited to play soccer at Ohio University in the fall, and she’s glad she prioritized her health now so she can continue to play the sport she loves safely.

“I’ve rested," she said. "I feel better and I want to play."

Copfer is back in action. She told Spectrum News she played well in her first game following her concussion and her team won 8 to 0.

Concussions can be extremely dangerous. Schaefer explained it happens when nerve endings are disrupted after head trauma.

Data show there are short term and long-term effects, which is why it’s vital a player comes out of the game if a concussion is suspected.

“If you have a concussion and you push through it, I know a lot of athletes are used to pushing through their injuries, you can actually prolong your symptoms because your brain needs that time and needs that rest, that relative rest, in order to regrow those nerve ending and improve your symptoms," Schaefer said.

The signs and symptoms of a concussion can occur immediately or up to 72 hours after the incident. On average, it takes two to six weeks for a first time concussion to heal, but anything less than three months is considered normal.