Heading is an essential part of successful soccer play, around 20% of goals come from headed shots. A player must be able to pass, shoot, clear and even control the ball using their head whether this be in a standing, jumping or diving position. For example, a central defender must be able to make a good headed clearances whilst having the capacity to move forward and score with a header from a corner kick. Younger players should be encouraged to start heading the ball early on but only using a correctly sized ball (light and smooth) to avoid the risk of head injury. Some younger players may be scared to head the ball for fear of hurting themselves and the coach must dispel this using carefully chosen introductory practices and lots of encouragement.
Indeed courage is a major factor in heading, putting your head in where it hurts is an often coined phrase. A good example being the diving header which whilst being spectacular and although can sometimes put the player at risk of injury, is one of the most satisfying goal scoring actions. Likewise, attacking the ball is an important technique. Again younger players may shut their eyes and let the ball strike their head due to a lack of courage whereas they should attack the ball.
There are two important aspects of good heading technique:
- Accurate contact with the ball: Contact with the ball should always be made with the forehead area. From time to time, a player may use the top of their head to flick the ball on from a long flighted pass or throw-in. The eyes should always be open (at least until impact) and fixed on the ball and the body positioned in line. To direct the ball downwards, the forehead must make contact with the top-half of the ball. The side of the forehead can be used to glance headers on and the middle for more direct power headers. In a stationary position, the power comes from the legs, back and neck. The player "rocks" backward and pushes his body forward to meet the ball.
- Attacking the ball: As mentioned earlier, this is an extremely important technique. To put power into a header, this requires successful co-ordination of different forces. To gain power, a player can run and jump off one leg to meet the ball. This requires good timing of the run as well as anticipation of where the ball will be placed. After take off, the upper body arches backwards and this momentum produces a snapping action where the body is propelled forward. At the same time the neck is extended then snapped forward in synchronisation with the body to strike the ball with maximum power. The ball must be struck at the top of the jump, if the player jumps to early, he will touch the ball on the way down and lose all power. The ability to run and jump is useful in winning the ball in a crowd of players and should be practised to ensure perfect synchronisation of the action.
It is important to mention the technique for flicking the ball on which is often neglected by coaching books. This technique involves jumping for the ball to play (or continue) it in more or less the same direction where it was played from. Many teams will play a long flighted pass from the back to the centre-forward who will try to win the aerial challenge and flick the ball on to a team-mate running behind him. This requires good timing and the ability to jump high. The player jumps in the same way as mentioned earlier but drops his head slightly forwards before making a backwards flicking movement with the head to strike the ball (usually with the top of the head) and keep it moving forwards.
To build up heading technique, the coach may want to start with simple practices such as encouraging players to juggle the ball with their head. Gently throwing the ball in the air so the player can head it back to the thrower or to players positioned around the receiver (the receiver can be static to begin with then try attacking the ball) will allow the player to gain in confidence before moving onto more complex techniques. Once the basic technique has been acquired, then differently flighted balls can be played into the player to test and improve his ability (e.g. crosses to be headed into the goal or high balls to be cleared).