Heading the Ball

By Jeff Tipping, UEFA A License, USSF A License, Former NSCAA Director of Coaching Education

The following is an excerpt from Jeff’s book, “Drills and Exercises to Develop the Elite American Soccer Player©.” Get the full book.

Heading is one of the most difficult techniques to practice for two main reasons;

1. Care must be given to safety of players. Head collisions and GK collisions must be avoided.
2. A good practice is dependent on the quality of the service.

Heading, however, is such an important part of the game that it cannot be eliminated. Countless games have been won or lost by a header so not practicing it is not an option. Aerial dominance cannot be underestimated and many teams have capitalized by having a giant or two at the front of the team who score goals from restarts, crosses and are able to bring other players into the game with knock downs or flick-­‐ons. On the opposite side of the ball most teams have a couple of players in the back four who are noted for their heading prowess. It is extremely rare to see a team with small center backs although FC Barcelona turned everything on its head by playing 5” 9” Javier Mascherano in the middle of the back four in the UEFA Champions League final in 2011. Of course everything they do is well thought out. 

The best headers of the ball are not always tall. The great German striker Uwe Seeler was a masterful header of the ball at 5’ 8“ as is Everton’s Australian striker Tim Cahill who is, also, well under six foot. What these players lack in terms of height they make up for in timing and what is called “spring” referring to an uncanny jumping ability. Heading the ball is a complex technical skill and we teach strikers a different technique than defenders. The old adage is that we teach strikers to head the ball down and we teach backs to head the ball high and wide. This is not, universally, true as there are times when backs head the ball down and strikers head the ball over the GK.

The following are important teaching concepts for heading:

1. Player should get in the line of flight for the ball.

2. Player must read the trajectory of the ball. Good headers of the ball focus on the flight of the ball more than the movement of teammates or opponents.

3. Decision is made to jump or stand and head.

4. Eyes should be open at contact. Chin is up.

5. Ball is contacted by forehead between eyebrows and hairline. Keeping the chin up helps.

6. Arms are held up and bent at the elbows. This offers protection and also enables players to use their elbows as “pistons”. The two pictures below illustrate good elbow position. The player in the bottom picture has her eyes closed and arms in a poor position offering no protection or power. She has, however, contacted the ball at the correct part of the head.

heading the ball
how to head the ball
soccer heading

7. When jumping to head the ball, players who can have a run up to head the ball will, normally, be able to jump higher than a player who has a standing start. CB’s often, go over the top of CF’s to win the ball because they have a run up. CF’s can negate the advantage a CB has by backing into the center back and taking away their run up. 

8. The key, when jumping for a ball against opponents, is to jump slightly before the opponent jumps. The opponent, then, jumps into you and, actually, lifts you higher. Two good photographs here illustrate this.

contested heading
exercises for heading the ball

Get Heading Drills, The Da Vinci Coach Skill Set and much more in Jeff Tipping’s book, “Drills and Exercises to Develop the Elite American Soccer Player©.” Get the full book.