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.
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.)