There has been (and still is) a lot of discussion about the dangers of heading the ball but the short answer to the question “is heading dangerous?” is “no”.
There is no evidence that heading a ball has ever resulted in actual, long-lasting harm… as long as you teach your players to do it properly.
What age to begin?
Children under the age of six have neither the body awareness or ability to visually track the flight of a ball and are very unlikely to even try to head a ball during games.
That said, you can help children as young as four or five develop the skills they need to head the ball safely by starting with a balloon instead of a ball.
Just make sure you teach the “mouth closed, eyes open” technique (see below) and encourage your players to jump up to meet the balloon on its way down.
You can also make it a fun team game. Have four or five children in each team and see which one can keep the balloon in the air the longest.
How to teach the basic technique
When your players get to U8 level, you can expect them to try to make contact with the ball when it’s in the air. So it’s important to make sure they do it properly.
Give every child a beach ball or a small, light football ball and demonstrate the following technique before allowing them to have a go themselves by throwing the ball up and heading it on the way down.
- Keep your eye on the ball.
- Eyes open – if you can’t see the ball coming, it could hit you anywhere.
- Mouth closed – if you don’t, you could bite your tongue.
- Chin tucked in – helps keep your neck stiff.
- Use your arms to balance.
- Use your legs to move your head towards the ball – don’t let it hit you.
- Make contact with your forehead – the thickest part of your skull.
- Follow through towards the target.
Have your players hold the ball in their hands and move their forehead to the ball (you want to ingrain the habit of meeting the ball with the head, not waiting for the ball to hit the head). Then ask them to throw the ball a couple of feet in the air and head it back into their hands.
If you ensure your players are using this technique and heading the ball correctly, their forehead will absorb the impact of the ball and their neck will not flex.
Games to practise heading
Throw, head, score
Set-up: Divide your players into teams of four or five and set up a 40 yards by 20 yards playing area with a goal at each end for each pair of teams.
How to play: The players advance towards the goals by throwing the ball to each other.
They can only take one step with the ball before throwing it again. If they take too many steps or allow the ball to fall to the ground, possession is given to the other team.
Goals can only be scored with a header.
Coaching note: Correct faulty technique as soon as you see it.
Set-up: Divide your players into teams of three or four. Set up a badminton net or rope attached to two poles in the centre of the playing area.
How to play: Teams play volleyball by heading a beach ball over the net or rope.
Serves are made by punching the ball over the net by hand.
A point is conceded if a team allows the ball to fall to the ground inside its half of the playing area.
A ball that lands outside the playing area results in a point to the defending team.
You can also play a small-sided game (SSG) called Challenge!
It’s a standard 4v4 game with the condition that every time the ball goes out of play you restart by throwing the ball in the air and awarding a point to the team whose player heads it first.
Tip: Don’t allow players to push each other to reach the ball. You’re looking for decisive jumping and a desire to get to the ball first. If the ball hits the ground before anyone heads it, throw it up again.
 The American Academy of Pediatrics, Heading Soccer Ball Doesn’t Cause Brain Damage, Pediatrics, February 2010; 410-414
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