The Lost Art of Heading

I watch a lot of soccer games at all levels. I coach nearly every age group, from youth to high school. I referee college games just about every week, and when I’m not doing all of that, I’m watching high level club games that feature clients of TSA Recruiting. One disturbing area of weakness among most players is the lack of ability to go head the ball or even be brave in attempting a header. Just last night, I officiated a college game where one team scored all three goals via set pieces and headers. In the college game, the ball is in the air at a much higher frequency. Goalkeepers punt and hit long goal kicks, while corner kicks are always scoring opportunities and so being able to play the aerial game is so important.


I can understand the lack of ability to head the ball at age 13-15.  Safety concerns from US Soccer have adjusted the game at ages 12 and under to basically eliminate heading. Punts are not allowed from goalkeepers, building from the back is encouraged versus the long goal kick heading the ball is considered a foul. The problem is, this all changes overnight.


At u13 the game looks like an adult game. Goalkeeper’s can punt and kick the ball long, but our youth have not been trained in heading so they just refuse to do it, or do it incorrectly and from what I have seen. The fact is, training as it relates to heading in US Clubs and high schools is minimal or does not exist.

If you watched the Women’s World Cup, the players were proficient in the air. Balls in the air didn’t touch the ground nor did they opt to stick out a leg to kick the ball when heading was the correct course of action. It was entertaining to watch and this is why the World Cup is what it is, a collection of the best players in the world. 


However, I see everywhere from college to u13 in the USA, players unwilling to head the ball. I may be old school in some of my methods, but I promise that at the high school and college levels, the ball is in the air a lot! Kids won’t go for a header because they haven’t been taught the correct way, and in fact, have actually been taught by USA Soccer to not head the ball at all.


I don’t blame anyone, there are enough articles out there that challenge heading as unsafe that it can scare about anyone. However, I see our players stick their leg out to try to kick it out of the air, trap it or even chest it down. Trust me, trying to kick a punt out of the air is more difficult than heading it. Trying to trap it next to you to make the next play is all but impossible if under any amount of pressure. Heading the ball gets it past the first line of defense and out of trouble and makes losing it in the back way more difficult. In all my observations of youth soccer, I see balls in the air that are not dealt with properly and it creates easy chances for the other team. Not to mention that when teams are attempting corner kicks, there’s rarely someone in the box ready to attack in the air with their head.


In the college recruiting scene, a great aerial player is a rare find. When I was coaching college, I had players that got on the field just because they were better in the air than everyone else. The teams I coached were amazing in the air and we won games because of it. If you want to play in college, you must be at least proficient in the air and if you want to guarantee playing time, you better be brave and very good. It can earn you a roster spot and increase your chances of playing. If you are actively avoiding heading the ball in games, college coaches will notice and there is a good chance that they will pass on recruiting you.

During a stretch of time when I was coaching women’s college soccer, I had a goalkeeper that was so dominant in the air that I would send her forward on corner kicks when we needed a goal. In one season alone, she scored SIX times on such plays, including a few clutch goals in the NCAA Tournament that helped our team advance to the next round.


Being dominant in the air can change the game and can make you stand out from your teammates or other recruits. But just as easily as it can help you stand out in a good way, if you’re not willing to go for those headers, it can be a strike against you in the coach’s eyes.


I have players that I am consulting with now that play positions which require you to be proficient at heading, such as center backs and center defensive midfielders. It amazes me how their highlight clips they send me have very little to do with heading. Simply put, a college coach won’t recruit someone who can’t head a ball, plain and simple. While I’m not suggesting that you should go against the recommended safety guidelines, what I am saying is that you can work on those skills in a safe manner.

As a college coach for nearly 25 years and now as a high school coach, I promise you that if you focus on heading for 5-10 minutes each practice you will see results over time. It is that important. For youth players, I recommend starting with a NERF soccer ball or a volleyball to help reduce that fear, over time working your way to heading with a size 5 ball. As a coach, my goal is to make my teams dominant in the air in a safe and effective way. It’s an overlooked and undertrained fundamental part of the game and can make or break your college recruitment.


You want to play college soccer? Get great in the air!