USE YOUR HEAD
As a college and semi-pro player, I always claimed that my ability to head the ball was “the best part of my game.” At a towering five feet nine inches (according to our biased college online roster), I seemed to head the ball twice as many times as other players on my team. Out of the 20 career college goals I scored, exactly 10 of them were headed. I took pride in my ability to judge the ball’s flight and attack it in the air before my opponents could.
As I became a coach, I thought back to how I developed this ability. A huge part is building the attitude and willingness to head the ball. The confidence required to do that goes hand in hand with the technique used to perform the header. After all, if I landed wrong, got elbowed in midair, or painfully headed it with the wrong part of my skull, I would have been severely discouraged to do it so many times. I spent countless hours honing my technique, timing my jumps and contacting the ball in the right spot to avoid pain. With the recent changes in how we develop players, specifically related to heading the ball, I worry that the “art of the header” will soon be lost.
As of January 2016, the governing body of soccer in this country, the US Soccer Federation, implemented a Concussion Initiative, as part of the Player Development Initiatives, that aim to keep players safer and parents, coaches and officials more aware of concussions and how to deal with them.
The main points of the initiative are as follows:
- If a player is suspected to have a head injury, the referee or game leader is instructed to stop play to allow for treatment/evaluation as needed.
- If the player leaves the field of play for additional evaluation, a substitution can be made in that moment.
- The player with the suspected head injury may not return to the game unless a Health Care Professional (HCP) or Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC) has cleared the player.
- Any coach or parent insisting on returning the player to the game without approved clearance will result in the referee ending the game.
- Heading is not allowed until U12. U13/U14 players must limit heading to 30 minutes per week.
- If a player heads the ball in a game, whether deliberately or accidentally, an indirect free kick should be awarded to the opposing team from the spot of the offense.
- In a controlled and individual environment (where heading is an isolated skill being taught away from any form of opposition or other aspects of the game), the use of lightweight balls (foam, balloon, etc.) would be acceptable for teaching heading technique.
With the advanced research and knowledge of concussions in the past decade, the Federation was right to be proactive about implementing some guidelines to the millions that play soccer in the country each year.
A common reaction from coaches has been to avoid training heading technique altogether, which can be to a player’s detriment later on in his/her playing career. I would compare it to the idea of not working on the “spiking technique” in volleyball until players are 13. Will the foundation of setting and underhand passing set a player up for success to spike the ball correctly later? And, to add to the level of difficulty in soccer heading, you are using an entirely different body part then you have used to play for up to 12 years.
Within the boundaries of the Concussion Initiatives, can we, as coaches, educate our players correctly and allow them enough repetitions to improve heading technique by the time it is allowed at U12?
Some ways to set players up for heading success before U12 include:
- Using soft balls (like Gator balls) in training
- Make heading fun by turning it into a mini game like Head or Catch
- Add elements of heading into warm ups where each player has a ball
- Talk and walk every player through the technique
- Teach players how to jump and land correctly
- Encourage players to experiment with a softer ball at home
- YouTube and watch “what good heading looks like” from professionals
Set players up for success by teaching technique and form first, followed by scenario training. I believe we can, as leaders and coaches, teach the heading technique in a fun and safe environment.