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"Heading" - where is it heading?

Definitely on a better and safer course

Soccer experts have long debated the question of safety in heading the ball, and though they've never arrived at a consensus of opinion, they agree that heading can be made safer.

Today's balls, for example, are better and safer. The molded ball, with its extremely hard shell, has virtually disappeared. Some new outer shell synthetics are softer and friendlier. The lighter balls (14-14.2 ounces) fly truer, last longer, and are safer. Tighter seams prevent significant water absorption (which makes the ball heavier) even in a full game in the rain. (Safety tip: Use a fresh ball in the second half.)

Coaches have taken important steps in the cause of safer heading. Youth experts like Tom Fleck and others recommend a break with tradition. Instead of teaching it in 90-minute progressions, they advocate practicing it in five to 10-minute segments every day. North Carolina's Anson Dorrance helped pioneer this kind of practice.

Back in my playing days, I always wound up with a headache after a 90-minute heading workout. The shorter periods allow the players to develop both the courage and the strong neck muscles needed for successful and safe heading.

COACHING THOUGHTS

Keep the eyes focused on the ball; watch it onto the forehead. Many coaches recommend keeping the eyes open all the way, but that's practically impossible. Everyone blinks naturally when heading the ball. Tip: Be careful not to close the eyes before the natural blink at contact.

For effective skill mastery, start by having the header hold the ball with both hands and gently touch it to the forehead, with the head held back and the forehead facing the sky.

Begin practice with a ball inflated to about eight pounds of pressure. But don't make the ball too soft. That can actually hurt even more. Players should first head the ball from a sitting position, then kneeling, standing, and jumping.

Finally, add opposing pressure to the mix. Start with the opponent about a yard in front of the header, jumping vertically to simulate the challenge. Later on, have the opponent establish contact from the side.

In the beginning, serve the ball to the header underhanded from about six feet away. Any closer or harder the serve, the more difficult it will be for the header to react safely to the ball.

The players should deal with single tosses, catching the ball after heading it. Only after a substantial number of single tosses, should two consecutive headers be attempted.

Don't push the players too fast. Let them gain confidence in their ability to head correctly and fearlessly before moving on. Serving the ball up for air-borne headers should be reserved for the competent older player (high school age and up).

Eventually the player will master the skill and begin to develop the power needed for this kind of heading. Good heading involves the whole body, especially the neck and abdominal (complementary back) muscles.

Great headers also use their arms for thrust and balance, as well as the rhythmic coordination that provides most of the power. If the header can get the legs, abdomen, shoulders, arms, and hands (wrist) working in synch, he won't have to be particularly strong to achieve great power.

Timing, especially involving footwork, keys the power takeoff. But the player doesn't want to get to the ball too soon, or he'll be standing still when the ball arrives. On corner kicks, for example, the player should set up deeper than where he intends to be to strike the ball. Whether on offense or defense, the player should be moving forward when preparing to head the ball in the area.

The popular diving header should be practiced on deep wet grass (morning or evening dew or rain helps). Early on, the players should use their hands to effect a gentle landing if they slip. Good practice sessions should encompass repetition, variety, and fun!

The follow through is critical in heading. Hubert Vogelsinger recommends keeping the chin down and bending the body like a bow. Strikers should be exposed to a lot of practice on heading the ball into the goal.

Heading skills must be practiced at all levels, right up through college and the professionals. NSCAA director of licensing courses Jeff Tipping suggests using a good lightweight ball for heading instruction.

Summing up: the awareness of potential danger, better balls, and short-sided play for youth teams have all contributed to safer heading. The Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter encourages (1) limiting heading for young players, (2) using a smaller, lighter, higher-quality ball, and (3) changing balls in wet weather.

The pass, cross, and header goal is, perhaps, the most exciting action in all of sports. Keep in mind that maintaining this elegant skill requires knowledge, moderation (in practice), and quality equipment.

To everyone who believes that heading a soccer ball is too dangerous, we point to the great professional defenders who headed tens of thousands of balls with no ill effect. Let's not forget, however, that proper coaching and practice can help keep heading safe.

Coaches should make certain to train their players in how to jump, as game situations often dictate a heading action off a jump. Most heading practice is designed to get the ball down in order to get it past the keeper or to pass it to a teammate's feet.

Now, anyone who can head a ball down can clear a ball in the air, but the opposite is far from true. Many players cannot contact the ball on the flat surface of the forehead to get the ball down. They often attempt to head the ball down by impacting it at the high hairline point.

This is dangerous because it takes the player's eye off the ball and causes the player to contact the ball with the top of his head. This not only hurts somewhat but places the header in a compromised position: receiving an impact with the head in a straight line with the spinal column - which can be dangerous.
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Title Annotation:soccer safety
Author:Caruso, Andy
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Words:1008
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