Heading the ball—it’s one of players’ favorite and most effective moves, at both the professional level and even in high school or recreational leagues. When you’re cornered into a tight position, nothing can clear the ball or get it to a teammate better than a quick header—not to mention, this move just looks cool!
But while headers can be effective, they can also be dangerous. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics revealed that headers in high school games accounted for nearly one third of all boys’ concussions, and more than a quarter of girls’ in the same age group.
Fortunately, a knowledge of how to safely head the ball may help decrease the amount of injuries we’re seeing. And that knowledge isn’t just for kids—often times, even adult players will start heading the ball on the fly, and never quite learn the proper (and safe) technique. If this applies to you, brush up on these tips for a safer header:
Prepare to strike. Heading the ball is not a passive action… you won’t get the force you want with a header if you simply stand still and let the ball bounce off your head. So you should prepare to strike when you see that a ball is coming and a header is the right course of action. Do so by balancing your legs and bending your torso slightly backward. You can also move your arms to the front of your body… just be sure to not let them touch the ball! By taking these steps, you’re getting ready to “pounce” on the ball instead of letting it hit you.
Swing your body on impact. The stance you adopted in the first step should change when you actually come in contact with the ball. Swing your elbows back and simultaneously thrust your torso and neck forward to “punch” the ball with your body (again, we’re focusing on not letting the ball hit us, but instead acting on the ball with our bodies’ natural force).
Hit the ball with your forehead, at the natural hairline. Anyone can let the soccer ball bounce off their scalp by accident—and maybe the first time you did that, it worked perfectly! But this isn’t the best way to ensure that the ball goes where you want it to… and it can also give you a headache or other injuries. Instead of letting the ball crash into your scalp (or your face), angle your neck and head so the ball comes in contact with your forehead at your natural hairline. This part of your head is more protected naturally, and it also allows you much more aiming power—which you really need in those high-pressure situations!
These are the most basic tips for completing a header that’s both safe and effective. If you’re a coach, parent or avid player, the best thing you can do is help to instruct younger players on the proper technique (and, of course, lead by example). We hope these steps will help you to improve your game next time you’re on the field!