As youth soccer players grow older and more frequently incorporate heading into the game, there's a natural increase in concern over safety and head injuries. While injuries do occur—concussions included—using proper technique can significantly reduce that risk.
The American Youth Soccer Association doesn't recommend introducing heading, hitting the soccer ball with your head, to players who are younger than 10 years old, but as children reach that milestone age, proper instruction becomes essential.
When heading the ball, players should remember to:
1. Keep their eyes on the ball and adjust so they can strike it using their forehead. Using the top of the forehead near the natural hairline gives players the most control, helps generate power and is the least painful spot to strike the ball. Preparing for a header and being ready to complete the action is crucial. The idea is to always hit the ball—not let it hit them or catch them unaware.
2. Bend their knees, keep their eyes open and close their mouths during the heading process. Be aware of their position on the field, as well as the position of others. This helps prevent injuries and promotes better strategic decisions, such as where to direct the ball in a clearing attempt.
3. Use arms for balance and follow through with the header to ensure maximum power. As players get older, jumping or diving headers also become part of the game, and becoming comfortable with the basic technique will help players master those aspects later on.
4. Always make sure balls are properly inflated and are the right size for a particular age group. Having too much air in the ball can make heading unnecessarily painful for players.
While a single header is unlikely to cause a concussion—especially with younger children who can't put as much speed on the ball as older players—the situations on the field that lead to headers can cause injury. Collisions between players, whether it's head-to-head contact or shoulder-to-head contact, can cause more concussions than simply connecting with the ball. Limiting dangerous or dirty plays can help limit this threat of injury, as does enforcing the rules of the game and being aware of surroundings at all times.
Headgear meant to reduce the initial impact of headers and absorb shock does exist, although there's a lack of data about its effectiveness in preventing concussions or long-term repercussions from heading. As headgear is permitted in games, parents can decide if it's something they want to pursue for their child. If it is, remember to remind them that it does not entirely eliminate the risk of injury and shouldn't replace proper technique on the field.
Communicating with your child's coach to adjust technique and eliminate any bad habits that crop up can also help promote safety and reduce the threat of injury. As debate continues over the long-term effects of repeated heading, parents can also encourage safety in soccer by staying up-to-date on new studies and using any findings to adjust practices accordingly.