Are we doing it the right way?
Before we begin, I feel I need to preface a few things in anticipation of a potential backlash. We all know people love ignoring nuance in the pursuit of inventing something to be outraged about. Because whoever has the loudest outrage claims the moral high ground. So as I write out my thoughts throughout this piece, remember the following;
I am not anti child.
I am not pro concussion.
I want what is safest for players in both the short and the long term.
Whatever we can do to make the game safer and more sustainable for players, we should look into it, and find ways to implement it practically and safely. From what I have seen of the heading ban in other places, I'm not sure it's often implemented practically or safely. I don't have research or facts and figures. I wouldn't even know where to look. All I can do is provide anecdotal observations of trends.
When a league or a governing body introduces a heading ban, ask the following questions;
Are they banning corners?
Are they banning drop kicks?
Are they banning throw-ins?
Is the ball still allowed to travel from the keeper into the opposition half?
Is the ball allowed to go above head height?
Are they banning free-kicks?
Typically, all that is banned is heading. They haven't done anything to affect the amount of times the ball goes into the air, or how high it goes. All they've done is ban deliberate heading. Why? Apart from safety, supposedly it teaches kids how to use their bodies to bring the ball down under control.
Here's a pretty standard headed goal from a corner.
How different would football be if there were no restrictions on how high or far the corner kick could be played, and everything else was normal, but the only difference would be that players cannot use their heads to attack the ball?
This is how I see it. Players want to win, and that means they have to get to the ball first. Defenders want to get it away from the goal, attackers want to get it into the goal. A ball dropped aerially into the six-yard box is very dangerous, from a football point of view. Remove heading, and this is what happens. It resembles kids learning how to kung fu kick.
We're not banning goal kicks or drop kicks? We're not doing anything to prevent the ball being sent high or long? Why not? We want to reduce or prevent heading, right? So we are we still allowing situations where heading is the most effective way to play the ball? That just seems completely backwards. Keepers booting the ball forward regularly leads to two or three headers being required after the ball is played. So why not ban that?
Sending the ball long is a very effective way of getting the ball down the field, closer to the opposition's goal. Keepers are encouraged by their coaches to kick it high and far. This means the ball travels with greater speed and then comes down with greater force. The impact the player receives on their head is greater.
In Sweden, they are moving to these formats. Clearly the Swedish FA has been reading my blog and Twitter rants. My rule of thumb has always been age minus, four, putting 11v11 at U15. What benefit does this have on heading?
Let's have a look at the following pictures for an idea of scale.
This is 11v11 on a full sized pitch.
Look at how far the ball has to travel, and thus how hard it will impact the head when players make contact.
Here is 9v9.
Here is 7v7.
And here is 5v5.
With each reduction in player numbers and field size, the long balls get shorter. Shorter long balls mean less impacts accumulating on the head. Reduced spaces often mean less advantage to be gained from playing the ball over the top or in behind. There's less space behind, and it is easier for the keeper to come out and sweep. In 5v5 football, transitions are often more fatal than they are in 11v11. We know from futsal that a loss of possession in your own half frequently results in a high value scoring opportunity for the opposition. So teams keep the ball for longer. They protect it better. They play short until they can open up the opposition and play through. 11v11 football provides more opportunity for a team to use the battering ram approach of just lumping it forward.
The below is an example of a headed goal in futsal.
There's less headers, and the ball hits the head with less impact.
So let's play more futsal, and also play a more developmentally appropriate version of football for young players. Then there will be considerably less headers occurring in a game of football.
But for me, this is a two-pronged approach. Despite all the rule changes and adaptations we've made in football around the world over the last few years, there are always youth coaches looking for that competitive edge. They game the build-out lines by short passing to a defender and booting it forward. They game no offside by having their 5v5 or 7v7 players goal hanging. They game the rolling subs rule by subbing three players out every three minutes like it's ice hockey in order to maintain a high press for an entire game.
The most ridiculous "gaming" of the no heading rule I've seen is in the USA. Players cannot head at U11, but they can at U12. Both age groups play 9v9. This means in the first year of 9v9, heading is prohibited and punished in the same manner as handball. But then, without changing any other constraints, heading is suddenly allowed in the second year of 9v9. American youth soccer is a highly competitive, lucrative business, worth millions of dollars. Wins are currency. Move up the table, recruit better players, win more games, earn more money through player fees as more kids in town want to be at your club due to all the plastic trophies they've seen you win on social media. At U11 it goes into overdrive, and any coach worth their salt knows how to game these game constraints.
For some reason, it was always worse with girls. Coaches had worked out the best formations to be defensively resolute, while having enough players around the ball offensively to win the knock downs. In competitive football, if you knew the opposition were terrible at defending set-pieces and long balls, what would you do? You'd pump the ball into the box at every opportunity. Think Allardyce v Wenger. Paul Robinson would launch a free-kick from seventy yards into the box. El Hadji Diouf would be elbowing the Arsenal keeper in the ribs to prevent him claiming the ball, and Chris Samba would barge through everyone to win the loose ball and fight it into the net.
Repeat. Scrape a plucky one goal win. Live off beating a top four team as the biggest achievement of the season. Dine out on beating Arsenal by making fun of your friends for months. Enjoy a tepid glass of Wenger tears as he complains about anti-football in the press conference.
It's fine for the Premier League, but it's not what we should be doing with kids.
At U11, playing 9v9, these teams always played a 3-1-3-1 or a 3-3-2. Maybe two strikers to win the ball. A holding midfielder to challenge and be in position to win knock downs. Always more defenders than the opposition has forwards. Remember that many coaches will ban their keepers from leaving the six yard box. Most keepers live on the goal line. And clever coaches know you can't be offside from a goal kick. Defences drop off and place numbers around where the ball will land. Keepers will boot their drop kicks, and defenders will boot the goal kicks (since most keepers aren't given a chance to develop their kicking technique, such is the importance of winning a kids' game of football).
[Just think about that for a second. In the USA, they banned heading, but not drop kicks.]
Because the opposition cannot head the ball, it becomes chaos. It really does resemble throwing a cat amongst the pigeons, or seeing people who don't like spiders jump out of their skin at the sight of one. It becomes a mess of arms and legs flinging around trying to make contact with the ball. There may be a ban on heading, but there's no ban on putting your foot really high into the air. Coaches of both teams are screaming at their players to not chicken out and to get to the ball first. This results in a lot of eyes-closed and hope for the best style kung fu kicks. From the thousands of these I've seen, it doesn't look any safer than heading.
What we're most worried about is concussions and blows to the head. Yet I'm pretty sure that most concussions in football aren't caused by heading the ball, but from the elbows and the head bumps as players compete for the ball. Again, anecdotal. I've never been taken off a pitch due to heading the ball, but I have been taken off for being elbowed in the face.
But hey, don't worry. Despite all the nonsense, it magically gets better at U12 when they're allowed to head the ball. Right? Of course not. Kids have been playing football for years without heading the ball, and now suddenly they are allowed to head it. What does this result in? Kids hurting themselves because they don't actually know how to do it. They haven't developed the technique or the perception required. American kids U12 and upward would be called 50p head if they played in England.
For those outside of the UK, the below is a 50 pence coin. Headers go in any direction, as it is not a developed or controlled skill, and they are often executed to thunderous applause from parents who are really impressed to see a real life header in the flesh.
Contact is made not with the forehead, but the top of the head. I believe the ban on the teaching of heading is also silly. Kids are not prepared and are then thrown into the deep end. It's like going from zero driving lessons to suddenly being chucked onto the motorway. And again, because we love hyperbole, I am not advocating for launching balls into the sky and making kids head them. There are so many better ways to teach heading. Let's discuss.
First, you can get yourself one of these. A nice sponge football, or a plastic ball we know all too well from shops along the British seaside. Perception-action-coupling, without the pain of the impact.
You can also try this.
Get a football on a string, and hang it from the crossbar or a tree branch. There's no momentum on the ball. All the player has to do is make the boxing pose, or pretend they're smashing a pane of glass with their head, in order to use the correct technique to head the ball. Adjust the height of the ball to work on different headers, including jumping for the ball.
Or why not use a balloon?
There's a couple other techniques I've used over the years, which we all know. You can self-serve from your hands, by tossing it up to yourself and heading it to a partner. Better still, hold the ball in your hands and knock it out with a nod. And another favourite is to get down on your hands and knees with a partner and knock the ball to each other using your forehead. None of these are high impact, and slowly introduce a player to heading techniques and concepts.
To summarise, the two prongs are as such;
Manipulate the constraints and the formats of the games of football the kids play to reduce the occurrences of high impact headers.
Enforce more developmentally appropriate styles of football so that it's more about co-operation and passing, rather than rushing and brute force.
Both mean less headers. The first means governing bodies and leagues have to pull their finger out and do what we've been asking them to do for years. The second requires not only more coach education, but also those coaches being held accountable by their clubs or count FAs, or whoever the authority could be.
In regards to the studies themselves that show the dangers of heading the ball, I haven't read any recently. I read a couple around a decade ago, and there were a few concerns at the time. Maybe later studies have addressed these issues.
Are they using the light modern footballs or the old leather balls that were rock solid when wet?
Have they looked into dementia rates of players who played in different countries with different styles of play? For instance, I can't imagine Andres Iniesta suffering too many concussions from heading a football.
Do the studies consider accumulated playing time of both formal and informal football? For instance, kids now play outdoors around 30% the amount of time kids from the 60s or 70s would have played. A child of 2022 might play one game and have one training per week, but apart from that, their access to a ball is limited, compared to children decades ago who would have been playing in the parks, streets, and at school.
Have they looked at concussion or dementia rates of players who predominantly played 5v5 or futsal?
Have the studies shown results that correlate to positions on the field or even styles of play?
What trends are we now seeing from countries that have had a heading ban for a number of years? Are there now more concussions from players who have not developed heading technique? Are we seeing more concussions at U11 football where heading is banned by players throwing arms and legs at the ball?
I don't want to be that guy. Everyone's collective goal in life should be to never be that guy. Well intentioned as it is, has the heading ban been properly thought through, or is it a knee jerk reaction? Is it a problem we're likely to avoid anyway by simply evolving football? Does it potentially do more damage in the long run? Not necessarily the banning of heading, but the banning of teaching of heading.
Here are some stats from AnalyticsFC.co.uk to provide some context. They talk about high impact headers. These are headers that are returning a long pass, which is a pass over 35m, typically a goal kick. Or headers that are from crosses, corners, and free-kicks.
The above graph shows that the average player in the top five English leagues makes around one header per game. Seems quite low, but then remember that some positions will likely head more than others. For example, barring the odd dodgy backpass, keepers can go an entire season without heading. The differences in league are attributed to the style of play.
This graph shows Premier League players who execute the most headers. These are mainly central defenders with a couple forwards, which is not unexpected.
Here are the stats for the Championship. Someone like Sam Gallagher plays as a target man. His job is to be big, strong, and win aerial balls.
The recommendation is no more than ten high impact headers per week. But keep in mind that a lot of players will play twice per week, with cup games, international games, and European competition. That obviously doubles their numbers, and puts them closer to achieving that number of ten high impact headers per week. For these players, highly paid professionals, they know how to head, so if they avoid heading in training, they won't make it to ten high impact headers per week.
I think we can reasonably do the same with kids. Shorten the pitches, adapt some of the rules (kick-ins instead of throw-ins), play more futsal, implement developmentally appropriate styles of play, and teach some low impact headers occasionally in training. We want less high impact headers per week for our kids. One way of doing this is putting the ball in the air less. Remove the opportunity to head rather than banning it.
This isn't football anymore. We have more tactical variety, more skilful players, better equipment and facilities, and way more coaching knowledge and research than ever before. Muddy pitches, rock hard Mitre footballs, playing in the freezing rain, being screamed at by men who were in the crowd to watch Stanley Matthews and Jimmy Greaves are still a valid part of football, but it's not the future. People much more intelligent than me are conducting research and making decisions. I just hope they don't make counter-productive decisions, even though those decisions may be made with the best of intentions, that end up harming our kids and our game in the long run.
What are your thoughts?