As a former college soccer player and concusssion safety advocate, the subject of heading in youth soccer is one about which I am passionate.
In determining what the best practice should be as far as when to introduce heading in soccer, and, just as importantly, how, I believe it is important to consider what the rest of the football-playing world is doing.
In developing elite soccer players in the United Kingdom, for instance, I understand that they do not see much general heading practice (right or wrong) in what they call the "Foundation Phase" (ages 8 to 11), with more practice among soccer players ages 12 to 16 (what they call the "Youth Development" phase).
Overall, most concentrate on technical aspects relating to the other surfaces. Perhaps there could be an argument that muscle memory and conditioning would be better started earlier, but with low-risk, low impact practice. For example, according to Tony McCool, Director & Football Coach at 2Touch Football in Luton, England, coaches in the UK have players do lots of head volleys with both feet on the ground. "I personally like to add heading from around 10 upwards," says McCool, "but this is in two's just to train the safe ways and technique. I also add a 'controlled' header' drill in which the player sets themselves with their head and then heads it back to the thrower. I do this for two reasons. It creates greater control with the head, rather than it just being a tool to smash through the ball for distance. Secondly it 'trains' the neck and surrounding muscles better."
Age 12: The Dividing Line?
In my opinion, what McCool says show just how soccer in the United States and the rest of the world are on two different levels. European countries live and breathe soccer much more than the US and you can tell in their style of play. I agree that it is at the "youth development" age of 12-16 that heading technique should be taught to players because it is an important part of the game and something unique that no other sport has. Below the age of 12, I do not think that this technique should be taught because there should be more focus on skill, touch, and technique for trapping and passing the ball.
I was taught how to head the ball at age 11 and a lot of that occurred because of the kind of coach I had growing up. He was from Colombia, where the skill is taught at a young age. His style of coaching focused on the same type of "small, low impact" heading that McCool talks about. I remember vividly going through drills that consisted of us approaching a tether ball very high up and trying to head it as a way to work on our vertical jumping, power and timing. Perhaps it's this very way of learning how to head the ball that made me such a dominant force in the air.
Could it also be true that my post-concussion issues are related to my early introduction to heading soccer balls? Time will tell.
In the United States, there are many coaches, especially in the younger age groups, who are un- or under-educated about the game of soccer. This includes the Laws of the Game, proper technique and age-appropriate training. Even young athletes will try to replicate what they see on television. In order to protect young players, coaches need proper understanding of the game to explain to their players what stage of development they are in compared to a professional player. (For an interesting article explaining the differences in youth training between the US and England, click here; for an excellent blog post by Brooke de Lench talking about the differences in player development, click here)
The other problem comes from the United States also having recreational leagues, like the example of the 8-year-old son and his dad coaching. Unless I've been mistaken all those years, and I was heavily involved with the game of soccer, it would be nearly impossible to find that in Europe or South America, where all the coaches are trained. The skill/technique of heading should ONLY be taught by licensed coaches who know how to properly teach the technique. Period.
I will sum up by simply saying this: heading the ball in soccer is just like hitting a golf ball on the golf course. Each has a sweet spot in order to ensure that both are being done correctly. If you mishit a golf ball, you'll get a stinger and, speaking from experience, those don't feel great. Also speaking from experience, if you head the ball in the wrong way and not off the forehead, then you will most definitely feel the effects, and possibly suffer a concussion. Why does it not hurt when you hit the ball on your forehead? I don't know exactly, but it's all about how you make contact with the ball (same thing with football; it's all about how you tackle that makes the difference).
Lauren Long played soccer at MidAmerica Nazarene University (Olathe, KS) until she was forced to retire by a series of undiagnosed concusisons. She is the co-founder with Samantha Sanderson of Concussion Connection, which is dedicated not only to improving education and awareness about sports-related concussions, but to helping athletes deal with the psychological effects that can often stem from suffering one or more concussions. You can follow Lauren on Twitter @concussconnect.
For more on Lauren's work as a concussion advocate, click here.