Sam Snow on teaching proper heading technique

By Sam Snow
US Youth Soccer Coaching Director

U.S. Soccer has recommended to its youth members to eliminate the skill of heading the ball in training sessions and games for children 10 years old and younger. Children 11 to 13 years old may head the ball in games, but are limited in how often the skill can be practiced in a training session. US Youth Soccer will follow that recommendation. The recommendation from U.S. Soccer is a part of a larger player safety campaign, called Recognize to Recover. I urge all coaches to review all of the information available here.

Previously published by the U.S. Soccer Sports Medicine Committee:

“At present, there are many gaps and inconsistencies within the medical literature regarding the safety of heading in soccer. The impact of purposeful heading is linear which is less severe than rotational impact. … Head injuries during soccer are more likely to be from accidental contacts such as head-ground, head-opponent, or the rare head-goalpost. …. At this point in time, it is premature to conclude that purposeful heading of a modern soccer ball is a dangerous activity.”

Fortunately, concussions in soccer are not as common as say, sprained ankles or even the more severe broken bone. Yet they do happen -- usually from head-to-head contact or head-to-ground contact. Head-to-head contact could occur sometimes due to poor technique by one or both players challenging for the ball in the air.

So most head injuries in soccer are from the head impacting something other than the ball. The human skull is surprisingly tough. Head injuries from the ball often occur when the technique is done incorrectly.

Here lies the real problem. Many coaches teach heading incorrectly or not at all. So many players head the ball wrong and this could cause injuries or inaccurate or poorly paced headers.

Early experiences can be painful if a careful progression in building up confidence is not applied. Let’s talk about how to teach this ball skill to young players who are 11-years-old or older.

When the skill is done correctly then the chance of injury is reduced. Simply telling a youngster to head the ball or just tossing one at him or her probably does more harm than good. When the skill is executed incorrectly then there is a chance for injury. Coaches want players to perform this skill well as it is a wonderful additional means of shooting at goal and passing to a teammate or into space. It is a skill that can be used when defending or attacking in a match.

A coach seeing the skill done as you see in this photo is a sign that a lot of teaching is needed:

The mistakes here include eyes closed (so the player has no real idea of the flight of the ball), contact will be with the wrong part of the head, arms are down by the side of the body and the player is allowing the ball to hit him. One major rule in heading is do not let the head be a rebounding surface for the ball. The head should hit the ball, not the other way around.

Coaches, introduce this skill with simple balancing of the ball on the correct part of the forehead as seen in this photo:

Then progress to juggling the ball on your own. Use under-inflated soccer balls, volleyballs, Nerf balls, tennis balls or balloons to get players started on learning the skill.

Next, move to a self-serve practice where the player tosses the ball up for him or herself to head to a partner. In this manner the player controls the timing of the serve as well as the height and speed of the ball. The partner will pick up the ball and do the same action as the two players practice heading the ball back and forth to one another. The progression continues until players are becoming confident enough to head the ball in a game.

Although, at its best, soccer is played mainly on the ground, the technique of heading is vital. Players who can make exact passes with the head, who can save dangerous situations at their own goal by heading the ball away, and who can make use of chances at the opponent’s goal by means of lightning quick headers are indispensable to their team. There is no better feeling in soccer than beating an opponent in the air to plant a header in the net.

Heading practice video:

Further reading: Introducing the Skill of Heading in the 11-U Age Group

(Sam Snow  is Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer, which registers more than 3 million players in 55 state associations. Prior to joining the US Youth Soccer Technical Department in 2003, Snow held positions as a U.S. Soccer National Staff Instructor and as a Director of Coaching for Louisiana Soccer Association. He has also coached youth, high school and collegiate ball.)

7 comments about "Sam Snow on teaching proper heading technique".
  1. Karl Schreiber, March 11, 2016 at 11:48 a.m.

    Dettmar Cramer’s approach using pendulums is still a good way to BEGIN practicing heading the right way IMHO. On a pendulum, the path of the ball is easier to predict.
    Also, balloons filled with air are good to practice with at one’s home, at ANY AGE. They almost float in the air allowing kids to get a feel for the technique – with guidance provided on the proper way to head the “ball”.

  2. David w. Terpening, March 11, 2016 at 12:39 p.m.

    The proper head location for contact with the ball should be taught as well. Time and time again players contact the ball with the top of the head... Use the forehead for contact. Thickest part of the skull. Only location for accurate re-direction.

  3. josh avenmarg, March 11, 2016 at 1:03 p.m.

    So the message is: teach proper technique, just don't start teaching it until age 11?!? That's logical because kids don't learn anything useful until age 11 (ok, enough sarcasm.)

    With the propensity of American society to seek litigation in order to solve problems, I'm also concerned that our more qualified coaches and referees will avoid U11 and younger ages.

    This move by US Soccer is an extreme reaction that has the ability to set back American soccer by decades. It is my hope that this "recommendation" will be further discussed in the near future.

  4. ferdie Adoboe, March 11, 2016 at 1:23 p.m.

    Using volley balls is also another solution. Lighter and softer.

  5. Mark Smith, March 14, 2016 at 3:14 p.m.

    To summarize, there is no medical evidence that heading the ball is a problem in youth soccer, so step 1, eliminate training under controlled circumstances. Step 2, allow heading in games after little to no training per guidelines. Step 3, right when players can really rocket the ball with power age 14, introduce this key soccer technical skill when most teams are shifting from technical development to tactical development as a focus.

    Sounds good to me. I cannot imagine anything going wrong with this plan.

  6. Mark Torguson, March 14, 2016 at 8:35 p.m.

    This was a poor reaction from US Soccer over getting sued. Just like the article says, there is no information that says the actual heading the ball causes any harm. Letting the air out of the balls is another way to train heading. There are some risks in sports, but overall, the health benefits of playing soccer far outweigh the negatives.

  7. Eric Dibella, March 15, 2016 at 11:24 a.m.

    I watched my son play his U10 game, and he tried to head the ball. His technique was poor because he used the top of his head. I was thinking that I would work with him to teach him to use his forehead with the idea that he should be able to see the ball when he heads it. BUT, now there is an indirect free kick for the other team, and basically they are being taught not to use the head at all. Well, what is the next part of their body that they may try and use - well, I think this would lead to more high kicks which could create a lot more dangerous play and develop potential bad habits. I agree with the comment above that there does not seem to be any clear cut evidence between brain damage and heading the ball. I grew up playing the game, and I believe that heading had no impact on my brain (I guess that is an opinion others may disagree - don't ask the wife...).

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