One of the more dramatic and challenging skills in soccer is “heading.” It is a skill that requires great determination, balance and timing. When introduced properly and performed correctly, it is not inherently dangerous and can actually be very fun. There is serious and important debate, however, regarding the techniques and the appropriate age at which to introduce heading to young players in order to ensure the highest degree of safety to developing bodies. A minimal number of properly scientific studies have been done in this regard, but no definitive conclusions appear to be available. Heading is truly unique to soccer and helps make the game most appealing. Accordingly, it must be taught and taught well.
- No players 8 years of age and under should be heading, especially standard, fully-inflated soccer balls; U9s should use soft balls; U10s may progress to standard soccer balls by age 10; the size of the soccer ball should still be age appropriate (approximately Size 4)
- Parents, siblings, and other players must be clearly instructed to NOT take it upon themselves to introduce heading to small children
- No one is to ever throw a ball at a child’s head
- Players are not to try to throw a ball up into the air to attempt heading it themselves; this rarely works and develops improper technique
- No young player is to be forced to head a ball; heading is an “unnatural” act and children who are reluctant to head at first do so from a normal protective instinct; no teammates should be allowed to ridicule a reluctant player
- Young players must not hit the ball with the top or side of the head
Objective for Beginning Heading:
Since the ball often becomes airborne in soccer, but field players are not allowed to grab it with their hands, it soon becomes apparent that the ability to control or redirect the flight of the ball by hitting it with the head is a very important skill. This is significant because the player who can head properly will get to the ball first, before a player who is trying to control the ball with his chest or who is waiting for the ball to come down to the ground, and this means obtaining or retaining possession for the team. In addition, many goals are scored or saved as a result of headers.
The first, and probably most important point to remember in heading, is that the player must forcefully go to meet and dynamically strike the ball with his head. The player must not let the ball arrive and hit him in the head. In order to do this, the eyes must be kept open during the entire performance of the skill so that proper timing may be achieved to strike the ball. It is quite natural to involuntarily close the eyes or blink when the ball is struck, but this natural tendency needs to be overcome by mental concentration. The mouth is to be closed.
The center (middle of the “equator”) of the ball is to be struck by the center of the player’s forehead at the point where the roots of the natural hairline meet the scalp. The force used to strike the ball is obtained by bending forward from the waist and snapping the head and neck forward. In order to create this force, before the ball arrives the body must first be properly balanced, with the weight evenly distributed on the balls of the feet and the arms slightly outstretched. Second, the torso must be bent backward from the waist and, third, the chin must be pulled in and the head pulled backward from the neck. (Additional force may be obtained by having the elbows bent at a 90-degree angle and positioned out in front of the body. At the time the ball is struck, the elbows are thrust backward.)
In summary, to head a soccer ball, the player should:
1. Before the ball arrives, keep the eyes open and the mouth closed.
2. Obtain proper balance.
3. Simultaneously bend backward at the waist and pull the head and chin back at the neck.
4. As the ball arrives, remember to aggressively strike the ball and not let the ball hit him.
5. Simultaneously bend forward from the waist and snap the head and chin forward from the neck.
6. Contact the center of the ball with the center of the forehead at the natural hairline.
When performed properly, heading the ball should not hurt. This is because nature has provided thicker bone in the skull at the forehead to protect the brain from injury when falling forward. If heading does hurt, it is likely that it is being performed improperly or possibly that a physical condition may exist which needs to be explored. On the outside chance that a player complains of a headache, dizziness, or blurred vision, heading must be stopped immediately. Beginning heading of a real soccer ball, or resumption of heading after a long period of inactivity, may cause the skin of the forehead to become tender. With continued training, the skin should toughen and the tenderness should go away.
To get to the point where the objective of beginning heading can be achieved, it is suggested that coaches use the following ball progression:
Sponge (NERF™-type) Ball
Partially-deflated soccer ball
Properly inflated soccer ball
*The soft-feel, air-filled ball, approximately the diameter of a standard Size 5 soccer ball, made of pliable plastic, which is usually sold from big bins in grocery, drug, and toy stores during the summer (see photo).
The following instructional progression for soccer heading is suggested:
- Introduce and demonstrate the ultimate objective as a “standing header.”
- Tap the ball #1: (Player standing.) Coach holds the ball with both hands at the proper point in space approximately four inches from the player’s forehead so that when the player nods his head into the ball, he will contact the proper point on the ball with the correct part of the forehead. The player is instructed to keep his eyes open and mouth closed while he looks at the ball and then nods into the ball a number of times (“tap, tap, tap…”).
- Tap the ball #2: (Player standing.) Upon recognizing that the player is contacting the ball properly, the player may hold the ball himself with both hands and nod into it (“tap, tap, tap…”). Players are to be instructed to hold the ball in one place in space and nod into it, not to pull the ball into their forehead.
- Knock the ball off: (Player standing.) Coach (at 90 degress to player) holds the ball on the flat palm of the hand at the proper point in space approximately four inches from the player’s forehead so that when the player nods into the ball, the player will knock the ball away. (Coach needs a number of balls and a retriever.)
- Waist bend: (Player on knees.) With player’s torso perpendicular to the ground, coach holds ball with both hands at the proper point in space approximately four inches from the player’s forehead. Player is instructed to bend backward from the waist and pull the chin in. Player is then to bend forward from the waist and nod into the ball; repeat. Options: player sitting with legs outstretched in a “V”-shape; player sitting on heels.
- Standing position: With the player’s torso perpendicular to the ground, feet shoulder-width apart, left foot slightly ahead for a right-handed player (and vice versa) for balance, coach holds ball with both hands at the proper point in space approximately four inches from the player’s forehead. Player is instructed to bend back from waist as in exercise above and then bend forward to contact the ball.
- Gentle toss from server: Player action as above. With the minimum force necessary to get the ball to the right position in space, server delivers a two-handed, underhand, only slightly-arcing ball from approximately three feet away. Player to try to head ball back to the server’s waist.
- Increasing distance from server: Action as above. Server moves back in one-foot increments to approximately six feet away, only if success is being achieved and player agrees. It is extremely important that the server only applies the minimum amount of arc to the flight of the ball upon delivery.
Option: After players are used to a server, coaches may return to the Waist bend activity and utilize a server moving from three feet to six feet back in order to emphasize the use of the torso.
Other activities with which to introduce heading:
- Players may butt the ball with their foreheads while on all fours to move it around the field (“Mowing the Grass”).
- Players may be on all fours and try to gently tap a stationary ball into the ground from above with their forehead (“Hammer and Nail”).
- Players (of the same height) in pairs may try to hold the ball stationary between their foreheads (“St. Louis Arch”).
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