Soccer is an incredibly dynamic and athletically demanding sport. It requires players to run, jump, accelerate, decelerate, change direction, balance, absorb contact, produce power…and have the ability to perform all of these athletic movements, and demonstrate sport-specific technical skills, over a prolonged period of time.
Judging, challenging, and winning balls in the air with your head is one of these specific technical skills that requires a great deal of athleticism, and it is one that (when done correctly and efficiently) can change the course of any soccer game.
Take a look at U.S. Women Soccer Team legend, Abby Wambach’s illustrious career. 77 of her record 184 international goals were scored with her head. And while she is one of the best to ever demonstrate this athletic skill on the pitch, she too has fallen victim to the injury that has soccer players, coaches, trainers, and supporters all talking these days: concussions.
Of the concussions Wambach and many other soccer players of all ages and levels have sustained, very few of them seem to be caused by simply jumping up and redirecting a ball with their head. Head injuries in soccer are more frequently seen due to players running, jumping, or falling into each other (causing head-head contact, head-knee contact, etc); or players hitting their heads on the ground or hitting the ball on the wrong part of their head after mistiming their challenges/jumps and/or being unable to absorb contact in the air and landing off-balance. And while of course there are freak accidents and some exceptions, it’s largely not the direct action of striking a soccer ball with your head that is the primary culprit for concussions in soccer-- it’s players’ lack of situational/spatial awareness, technical knowledge of and proficiency with the skill itself, and/or level of athleticism required to perform said skill (winning balls in the air/heading) or movements (like jumping and landing) while playing a fast, variable, contact sport.
As a popular sports performance adage goes, “When chaos ensues, an athlete will resort to what he/she knows best, not what he/she knows IS best.” With that being said-- preparation, awareness, and practice is key in order to help prevent the likelihood of concussions happening on the field. Soccer players should be able to regularly execute the prerequisite athletic movements and techniques required to safely and effectively both challenge for balls in the air, and head those balls, in a variety of different situations and conditions on the field in order to reduce their likelihood of suffering head injuries.
These movements and techniques include:
1) How to properly jump and land (both bilaterally and unilaterally).
2) Proper body coordination/control and core stability that is involved in these jumps and landings.
3) How to judge their angles of approach and timing of their jumps.
4) Proper skill mechanics of striking a ball with different parts of their head—and adequate neck strength and stability to perform these actions safely and effectively.
5) (Perhaps most importantly) – Effective proprioceptive abilities and situational awareness of when, where, and how to judge and challenge balls in the air; and how to head the ball depending on the conditions of the situation (i.e. where the player is on the field, who is around them, etc).