Don't ban headers: teach kids to master the ball instead

11 August 2023
Making the game safer by changing the way kids are taught to play
World Cup fever is peaking and many hope it will encourage more young players into the game. Dr Kerry Peek is leading the way in promoting education and preparation around heading as young players learn to play and love football.
Dr Peek setting up for a trial in the Biomechanics Lab.

Dr Peek setting up for a trial in the Biomechanics Lab. Photo by Trixie Young.

Heading in football is a hotly contested issue. Dr Kerry Peek from the University of Sydney says it’s time we made moves to ensure the safety of the game for Australian kids - but a blanket ban for young players isn’t the answer.

She is as concerned as many parents about growing evidence linking repetitive heading to long-term brain health issues. As a concussion spotter for the FIFA U-20 World Cup and FIFA Women’s World Cup, and an international expert in sports-related head and neck injuries she’s well aware of the risks – particularly for females who appear to be more prone to concussions.

That’s why she’s calling on football associations worldwide to help change how coaches teach football skills to young players and to help parents understand why it’s important.

Changing the way kids are taught to play the game

“There is no evidence that heading the ball is safe for children under the age of 10. But the reality is we can virtually eliminate heading from children’s football by changing the way kids are taught to play the game,” said Dr Peek, who with colleagues from Football Australia’s Expert Working Group on Heading and Concussion, as well as the Chair of UEFA’s Medical Committee, recently published evidence-based recommendations in Sports Medicine.

“Playing smaller-sided games and smaller goals, encouraging kids to keep possession, to play out from the goalkeeper, to play short corners and throw ins to the feet – all of these strategies keep the ball on the ground rather than in the air.

“And the beauty of this approach is it’s going to develop better foot-based skills or ‘ball mastery’ which makes for more skilful athletes and overall, a better game.”

Dr Peek said it also negates many complexities around the enforcement of bans or weekly limits on headers, as proposed under some nation’s guidelines.

Currently out of 211 football (soccer in North America and Australia) associations globally only a handful have heading guidelines, including England, Germany, Japan, the US, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“I wouldn’t say Australia is lagging but we certainly could, and should, stand up and do more - particularly as a fair amount of the heading research is being produced here in Australia.”
Dr Peek

What can coaches, parents and players do now?

Players practising HeaderPrep exercises.

Players practising HeaderPrep exercises. Supplied: Football NSW

Dr Peek is working with Olyroos physiotherapist Dr Matt Whalan of the University of Wollongong and exercise scientist Professor Rob Duffield from the University of Technology Sydney to develop HeaderPrep - a framework to condition and prepare players before they head the ball.

The project is based on her previous research looking at the value of neuromuscular neck exercises for injury prevention and the role of basic skill acquisition.

“No young player should be thinking about heading a ball – even specifically designed balls for heading – until they have developed basic skills in ball tracking and body positioning,” says Dr Peek.

The research team has partnered with Edward Ferguson, Head of Football at Football NSW to condense this scientific evidence into a range of user-friendly PDF and video resources for coaches, parents and players that will be rolled out across NSW in coming months.

“Football NSW are excited to be part of the groundbreaking research into heading within football to help create a more safe environment for players as they develop the technique,” said Mr Ferguson.

“Heading is a key part of the senior game with the likes of Sam Kerr, Tim Cahill and a raft of defenders who display the importance of the technique and its impact on match days.

“As a key technique within the game, it is our responsibility to help our coaches and players learn how to safely prepare for heading the ball and to introduce the skill development appropriately to best prepare them for matches.

“The HeaderPrep resources is our first step on this journey and we hope its adoption statewide will enable coaches, players and parents of players to be comfortable in practising this technique and part of the game.”

Dr Peek agrees and says it’s more important than ever that we get this right.

“Football is already one of the top youth sports in Australia and I think we can expect to see a surge in sign-ups following the success of the Women’s Cup. We must teach kids properly and support coaches and parents to promote safe play for player’s long-term health.”

Leading Australian research on heading

Players wear markers that reflect an infrared signal picked up by state-of-the-art camera technology to recreate motion in 3D. Photo by Trixie Young.

At the Biomechanics Lab in the University of Sydney’s Susan Wakil Health Building in Camperdown Dr Peek and colleagues use state-of-the-art 3D motion capture, instrumented (embedded with measurement technology) mouthguards and an instrumented ball to analyse impact forces during heading.

“Ultimately my team and I want to find the most accurate way to measure head impact forces during real-time match-play.”

Another project working with PhD student Julia Georgieva, computer scientists in Belgium and Saudi Arabia and FIFA is looking to use machine learning or AI to retrospectively analyse match footage for heading incidents.

Together these projects will be a vital step forward in improving knowledge and understanding of the impact of heading in the beautiful game.

Declaration: Dr Peek has received funding from a FIFA Research Scholarship and from Sports Medicine Australia. Kerry is currently an injury spotter (concussion) for FIFA organised tournaments (2023: U20s Men's World Cup and Women's World Cup). Kerry is a member of UEFA’s Heading Expert Group and Football Australia’s Expert Working Group (Heading and Concussion). Kerry is a member of Sports Medicine Australia’s NSW State Council.

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