Surprising effect of no-heading rule

We’ve just completed the first season with the no-heading rule for U11/U12 kids and younger.

I’m sharing a surprising observation half way down this page, but first let’s remind ourselves that there was a lot of concern that this would be difficult to implement and lead to a lot of confusion during games.

Well, here are two personal observation from officiating many games this last season where this rule applied:

First, it did not lead to the widespread confusion some naysayers predicted. Yes, there were instances of momentary parental confusion and delayed or missed calls from referees, but overall this new rule had no material impact on games.

It’s quite possible that you witnessed a game where a controversial heading infraction impacted the outcome of the game (e.g. was that really an intentional header?), but those were unfortunate exceptions, not the norm.

Everyone adjusted just fine. And we’ll see further adjustment this coming Fall season. It will fade into the background as a non-issue and the usual ‘handball’ and ‘offside’ controversies will dominate again….”It’s sooo obvious, ref!!”.

Second, and much more interesting, I saw many kids try to control airborne balls with their feet (!) by attempting to ‘catch’ or trap the ball instead of just letting it bounce repeatedly and then chase after it.

This is a much more difficult skill than heading. And it’s something you want to practice when you’re young so it gets hardwired into your brain. Don’t underestimate how difficult this is.

Heading the ball also needs to be practiced, of course, but youngsters can learn that even as late as 14 onwards. It’s a gross motor skill that can be learned relatively easily compared to the fine motor skills needed to control an airborne ball approaching at high speed with your foot.

And, in general, receiving the ball with your foot gives a player more control over the ball. When executed well it is very effective.

So in my view this no-heading rule turns out to be a blessing in disguise when it comes to player development.

There was a lot of complaining that this rule would develop players that aren’t as proficient in heading as our international competition, and in some cases heading the ball is indeed the better/smarter choice, but I very much doubt that this no-heading rule will impact the performance of our national team or players that want to go pro at 16, 18, or later.

And to be clear, I also believe that this no-heading rule is a blessing for the health of our children. It’s not so much the risk of concussions (which are bad, of course), but the damage from repeated impacts on the brain that worries me.

There is growing evidence that it’s these many non-concussive impacts that ultimately lead to permanent brain damage. To quote Dr. Michael Grey from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham in England:

“The cumulative effect of repeatedly heading a ball could be damaging. We call these sub-concussive events that might not lead to [an obvious] brain injury each time but a little bit of damage builds up over time. There is some belief that these sub-concussive blows may lead to neuro-degeneration.”

Medical research into these sub-concussive blows is underway and we’ll see a growing list of scientific results emerge in the coming years.

I actually think we should make no-heading mandatory until U14/U15. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

4 thoughts on “Surprising effect of no-heading rule

  1. I saw quite a few high cleats near the head–it doesn’t seem that kids are being taught how to properly trap the ball with their chests, even at U11/U12. And most of the headed balls were not intentional. You’re right, it’s become a non-issue already.

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    • If kids are using high cleats close enough to the heads of other players then referees need to call dangerous play infractions, which in turn will teach the kids to use their feet to ‘catch’ or trap the ball. Chesting is also possible, but for most 8, 9, and even many 10 year olds the size and speed of the ball makes that somewhat painful. They instinctively don’t typically chest it and that’s fine in my view. Chesting the ball can be learned later…it’s a gross motor skill and works best with some chest muscles. The more the kids try to use their feet to control incoming balls the better.

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  2. I like the change, but I did see a few kids hurt by high kicks. Refs made the right call “after” the incident, but I saw two kids take a cleat to the chin and face as a result of no headers. Refs need to remind/warn kids “before the game begins” against kicking too high since they cannot head the ball.

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