By John Cartwright

In my book, ‘FOOTBALL FOR THE BRAVE’, I have stated that Heading is — the football perfectionists ‘blind spot’. There is considerable interest and practises regarding other aspects of the game, but Heading seems, along with Tackling, the forgotten skills of the game. It was obvious in the latest Euro Club Championship final between Real Madrid and Athletico Madrid, that both teams were leaders in aerial domination in both attacking and defending situations.  Barcelona, with their high possession playing style have been deficient in developing variations and Heading has been a serious weakness for them in all areas of the field.


Teaching Heading and Tackling is not easy for coaches working at all levels of the game; it is especially difficult for inexperienced coaches working with very young players. Injuries and ‘discomfort’ can be associated with practises at any level but as both of these skills are so important in the game more time and  thought must be given to a careful but realistic introduction of these skills along with purposeful progression through the various age and playing level.

I will begin with Heading and follow with Tackling as a follow-up in the next ‘blog’.

HEADING:   The introduction of Heading to youngsters (boys/girls) must be carefully conceived and cleverly progressed; the type of ball and its weight — the reduced air pressure in the ball — and the type of practises provided, all must provide a ‘comfortable’ starting point for youngsters. Equally important is deciding when Heading should be first attempted with youngsters; at Premier Skills Coaching, I introduced Heading at the Level 3 stage (11/12 age range) — I believe that at this time most young players are at a physical and skill/tactical stage to perform basic Heading requirements.

Early practises should relate solely to ‘technique’ (hands/head) allied with simple practice organization with small numbers per working group (2) so providing a high number of contacts of the ball for each player. As ability and confidence increases the numbers per group can be increased (3-4) along with more playing realism that requires the inter-mixing of groups, hands can still be used to catch or serve the ball to group partners but there should be attempts to head-pass the ball to each-other within their own working group without use of the hands whenever possible.

Manchester City's Vincent Kompany goes for a header in front of Real Madrid's Sami Khedira during their Champions League Group D soccer match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid

Opposition into Heading practises must be carefully and intelligently introduced. At these early stages opposing players must use their hands (not their head) to intercept or regain the ball when competing for it. As well as in group practises, games involving hand/head, must be played using hands when defending so that collisions are reduced to a minimum. Hand/head games with goals only scored with the use of the head should feature regularly during the early teaching of Heading to youngsters. Regaining the ball from the opposition should be either from a touch with a hand on the ball whilst it is a being held, or by catching or deflecting a ball thrown as a pass for a header to be made. A game that is similar to Handball should be introduced with aspects of attacking and defending that are applicable for each development stage. Various types of thrown deliveries can be gradually introduced and playing areas can be adapted to provide opportunities for different types of crossing that provides headed chances at goal or headed passes for supporting players to score with a header. Defending is also possible in these games, for players must learn how to mark in these situations – and to anticipate when to intercept a thrown pass with the hand – and goalkeepers can begin to make decisions on if and when to catch or deflect a cross as well as save any headers at goal that might occur. Distribution by a goalkeeper must be thrown for a team member to catch for this player to then throw the ball to a colleague to head. Later, as heading becomes more proficient, outfield players can head the ball from their hands to team colleagues instead of throwing it. The ball must always be received with the head first if possible and if no immediate headed pass is possible the receiver can ‘cushion’ the ball with the head so that the ball can be caught with the hands; a thrown pass that is caught with the hands and not first with played into the hands with the head means immediate loss of possession to the opposition. Headers at goal can be directed with different types of contacts on the ball as ability improves through progressive learning stages.


As the ability to head the ball increases the coach can begin to allow defenders to use their head to challenge for the ball. This change should be organized to begin in designated areas —- in a three zone area, defensive heading should begin in the centre zone before extending defensive heading into end areas where more complex situations occur that can be dealt with in a systematic way by the coach.

Heading is a vitally important part of the game and requires more teaching and learning time to improve attacking and defensive ability. The game of football, like everything in life, does not remain the same —- it is always making adaptations and variations. The search to improve football must recognize the inclusion of aerial as well as ground skills and coaches from junior to senior levels must be prepared for the ‘journey’.

23 thoughts on “Heading

  1. I agree that it is important that children should be introduced to heading gradually and carefuly because if they get hurt practising the skill early in their football playing lives then they can become reluctant to head the ball for ever.
    Developing the ability to ‘cushion’ the ball with the head is a skill we neglect in this country when a direct,powerful header is not appropriate. Withdrawing the head on contact to receive the ball with the head can be worked on with quite young players because they are less likely to be hurt and it provides them with another alternative to receive the ball at a young age;

  2. Germany headed goal against France was no fluke and it was a joy to watch. Nearly all heading practices involve a coach throwing a ball to a kid who has to head it back to coach, then join back of line. Simple fun game of head tennis is a great way of getting repetition and a safe way to introduce heading.

  3. Hi all. The work on Heading is a crucial part of football development for the future. From simple practises at the beginning to more progressive work as players move upwards through the playing levels. coaches must think more positively and devise the work on Heading. Practises that incorporate realistic Heading skills allied to game situations for defenders and attackers must be used more frequently. But always remember — a building will only remain upright if the foundations are correctly installed: this principle applies to everything — football and heading as well!

  4. Glancing headers are a great way of redirecting the path of the ball. A cross to the near post draws the keeper to that side of his goal, but the near post runner glances away as his head makes contact with the ball and the ball is deflected into the opposite corner of the goal with the keeper wrong footed.

    Similarly, a glancing header by a striker can place the ball in behind the opposition defence, as they are drawn to the ball’s original direction, for a co-striker or midfield player coming from deep, to run onto and break clear of the opposing back line.

  5. Hi all. i’m not surprised that this ‘blog’ on Heading seems to be slow in replies. Heading as i have said is one of the important skills that has not received the attention or interest overthe year. As i have said in the ‘blog’, the teams that have power in the air are achieving success in the game. We had better start addresing the importance of Heading in the game of the future or we will fall even further behind in world football.

  6. I fully agree John. Player and team success is the result of accumulated positive decision making and detailed execution.The difference between winning and losing can often be decided in inches.Heading is such an important facet of the game that coaches have to maximise its success and affect as part of game strategy.Germany set up the result today versus Brazil with a headed goal!!The positioning,timing and execution was excellent whereas the Brazilian preparation was almost non existent. Top coaches and player developers prepare in great detail and leave nothing to chance therefore its self evident that attention to heading is vitally important.

  7. Heading practices are one the most fun sessions you can do, if done right and for the right age group. Too early and you could put them off, as a mistake could lead to a bloody nose or a sore head through using the wrong part of the head.
    As an introduction I personally like to use head tennis, no nets just two lines of cones 5ft apart, which they have to head the ball over. To keep the game flowing allow the use of hands (volley ball style) and feet to set up a header back across. The game encourages all types of headers with the risk of banging heads reduced.
    RVP diving header in the WC is one of the best goals of the tournament so far. One of the hardest skills to learn is the jump up, twist the body and redirect the ball with power, as its about perfect timing, athleticism and excellent technique, something that takes hours of practice to perfect.
    More realistic practices that involve movement off the ball, opposition and GK should be introduced once players have become more confident heading the ball.

    I have seen timid kids become more confident through regular heading sessions. Once they get used to jumping and challenging for the ball, the confidence gained has helped them improve other aspects of their game.

    • Hi Dave. The use of Head tennis in variable ways to suit learning requirements is an excellent aid in developing better Heading ability.

  8. At one time, British teams used to win matches against foreign teams on crosses and their superior aerial ability. The foreigners put in a lot of work to improve in this department and now their defenders and keepers are at least the equal of our players in the air. In addition, their forwards’ improved aerial ability, together with their intelligent moverment, as with Balotelli’s winner recently in Manaus, show that in attacking situations they are now superior to us.
    I wonder if, in defensive situations, our players lack quickness on their feet as well as anticipation. Many defenders find themselves underneath the ball, without having adjusted their feet to step backwards and so therefore be in a position to move forward as the ball drops and able to attack it and make a clearing header.

    • Hi Steve. One of the biggest problems with our defenders is their poor body shape in defensive situations. We seem to have forgotten the importance of being in a ‘half-turned’ (man and ball) position. The Ballotelli goal and the Suarez header against England in Brazil were typical examples of this.

  9. In a sense John, this is the BIGGEST criticism of all; that England – the eternal home of high crosses/route one football – cannot defend properly in this phase and one shouldn’t forget Gerrard’s tragic header against Uruguay!

  10. Hi all. Well it’s over –the most boring, over-hyped World cup i’ve seen since i first saw one of the truly great Brazil teams beat Sweden in 1958. The best team won the Tournament but there was nothing special about Germany except they were well organized and had a smattering of better players than anyone else. But where were the Greats? Messi was virtually non-existent; Van Persie started like a house on fire and then ‘smouldered’ for the rest of the time; Robben was probably the best of a very ordinary bunch. Where are the Pele’s, Ronaldo’s, Maradona’s, Platini’s. Beckenbauer’s and Moore’s? The lack of quality in forward and mid-field and defence in this tournament was truly astonishing –mediocrity called great again!. Sorry i’m not convinced by the Press or TV Pundits — ordinary is ordinary as far as i’m concerned.

  11. The World Cup was a tournment of dramatic matches, rather than a series of games of real quality. The most dramatic game was probaly Belgium-USA in the Round of 16. Thankfully, the superior talents of Belgium won the day, but the fact that the workmanlike qualities of the USA are making them a force to be increasingly reckoned with in the World Cup, says it all really.
    Germany, Belgium, Holland and France are reaping the rewards for good youth development and the best is yet to come from them i am sure. England should learn from the work which is being done in those countries and we do have a number of promising young players, but we have been down this road before and we fail to properly develop our talent.
    It seemed to me that the Argentinian coach, Sabella, was fixing Messi into a position, rather than letting him go where the little genius felt comfortable and was able to find space. When I saw him he rarely got out into wide areas in order to cut across the pitch , running at space to the side of opponents as he did for so many years at Barcelona. To restrict a player of Messi’s ability is tragic.
    Brazil’s defensive play in the semi final was lamentable. They were asking to be slaughtered by the Germans in gifting so much space down their left side for Muller, Lahm and co to exploit. Why did Luiz and Dante never step across to cover that space, but always stayed in the middle?
    Finally, Louis Van Gaal must have noticed that Fellaini is much better playing for Belgium as a forward player,rather than he was last season playing for Man Utd as a midfield player, which he is not.

  12. The 2014 World Cup showed us nothing new in the realm of tactics. Often a tournament reveals a new tactical plan or formation, but this year the teams stuck to tried and trusted formations.
    In 1958, Brazil introduced the 4-2-4 system. They tweaked this in 1962 when they withdrew left winger,Zagallo, into midfield and so we got 4-3-3. England went a step further in 1966 with the 4-4-2 formation. It is often said that they played 4-3-3, but they did not because Stiles played tight in front of the defence and Ball and Peters worked up and down the wide areas. Hunt and Hurst were the two strikers and 4-4-2 became the most popular system in England for many years.
    In 1974, I think the most exciting era in football tactics was produced when the outstanding Dutch team played their ‘Total Football’ system, where their outstanding individuals combined together to produce superb football without a fixed positionalised framework to inhibit them. It was a great pity that they finished runners-up instead of winners.
    In 1986, Argentina became the first World Champions playing the 3-5-2 formation and this influenced many teams, at both club and international level, for many years. A number of teams in this year’s competition still played variations of it. In 1998, France became World Champions without an orthadox central striker, attacking from midfield and with effective wide players cutting in. Brazil won the 1994 and 2002 competitions with a narrow based 4-2-2-2 system, where the full backs worked tirelessly up and down the flanks to give the width.
    John expresses disappointment with the ordinary quality we got at this year’s competition. At the end of the day, we all want to be thrilled by the skill and flair of great individuals. In Brazil, we got drama and thrilling matches, but, when we analyse it, the football was often ordinary, regardless of tactical considerations.
    Perhaps the best World Cup in most peoples’ lifetimes was the 1970 competition in Mexico. That Brazilian team was unforgettable, their skill, imagination and invention absolutely breathtaking. But there was still a tactical significance to their performance. That was their use of wingers. On the right, Jairzinho was normally a centra forward, but coach Zagallo converted him to a right winger “with a centre forward’s nose” and he was devastating. On the left, Rivelinho flitted between midfield and left wing, similar to how Zagallo himself had played in 1962. So that great Brazilian team thrilled us with their flair, but gave us a tactical lesson as well.

  13. Hi Steve. You are exactly correct in your breakdown of previous WC Tournaments. In comparison this latest ‘hyped’ month of football medocrity provided nothing with regards an expansion of playing quality in either individual or team terms. —- And let’s not forget, we finished bottom of a very ordinary group in a very ordinary Tournament; —what does that say about us?

  14. Hi John….
    The German World Cup success has been earned because when they recognised the problems in their game, about 10 – 15 years ago, they did something about it and vastly improved their coaching and youth development programme.
    There is nothing the Germans have done which we could not achieve. Get the FA Tesco Skill Coaches into the primary schools, but let them concentrate on giving games to kids where they play in tight, confined areas. Don’t worry about covering all the different skills from week to week, often in the old drill-type enviroment. Let them play, but in tight areas, where they learn from the earliest days how to play under pressure.
    Having been to Brazil for the World Cup, I can confirm that the popular view that golden nuggetts of football brilliance come off the Rio beaches like the Copacabanna, is a myth. These beaches are largely the playground of the rich, affluent section of Brazilian society, which does not produce many players. The future players are in the favellas, poor, shanty areas where children play on either small concrete courts or bare, patchty grass pitches and learn how to play in restricted space and develop their individualism accordingly.

  15. Hi Steve. I have always said that ‘STREET FOOTBALL (Favella Football) was and is the best development method for development — that’s why, having experienced the street game myself, i created Premier Skills Coaching Methodology along street football lines. Brazil are not producing players of the past simply because there is a gradual reduction in Favella’s as their standard of living improves and like steet football here Favella’s are not used so regularly.

  16. Hi all. I’m sure that Steven Gerrard, who has just retired from International football, is an honest and hard-working pro. He has given of his best for both club and country, but this does NOT make him a GREAT player. Like David Beckham, Gerrard is being heralded here as a Great player. Whilst we continue to over-hype playing standards here we will never establish the true qualities required for success in the game. Sorry ,but there is a vast difference between good and great!

  17. Hi John….
    I agree with the criticism of
    Steven Gerrard, who has just announced his retirement from international football. At the same time you are criticising the neglect of heading, once a strong skill in English football and a lethal weapon in our armoury when we played against foreign sides, and I feel that that there there is a connection between the two points.
    I agree that Gerrard, in common with a number of other players from the so-called “Golden Geneation” of the last 10 – 15 year, has been over-rated and considered a far better player than his limited level of technical skill deserved. Yes, a dedicated professional who put in hours of extra practice in an effort to improve his game, and a loyal one-club man – a fine example to young, aspiring English players. But a great player? Never. As you say, “there is a vast difference between good and great”, and Gerrard has been good, but never great.
    Where I think we must be very careful is that while we MUST raise the technical and invention levels of English football, it must not be at the expense of the natural, in-born qualities which we have always had in our football and which, even today, the foreigners envy. Our ‘bull-dog spirit’ and ‘never say die’ attitude must be retained or else our football will become all the poorer, even if we manage to raise our tehnical skill levels. Gerrard had such qualities in abundance and we must recognise that fact. If you speak to any foreign football person, whether they are within the game or a supporter, they recognise this fact, so we must make sure that we do not lose this quality.
    At the moment, new World Champions, Germany, seem to have just the right balance between skill, invention and imagination, and the qualities of physical aggression and mental strength. Earlier this week, their Under 19 team, playing Serbia in the UEFA U19 Championship were 1-2 behind with time running out. Serbia were dropping deep into defence and not giving any room for Germany to put th ball into spaces behind their defence for German strikers or midfield players to spin on to. So they got the ball wide and and played crosses into the Serbian penalty area. They were rewarded with a stoppage time equaliser which keeps the Germans well on course for the knock-out stages.
    The German crosses were dangerous and their strikers made dangerous, well timed runs. Clearly, the Germans have put in a lot of work on this aspect of the game, as well as the controlled, possession play with which they often dominate games. In England we must make sure that we get the right balance between the two, and not forfeit our strong points when trying to improve the points of our game which have been weak for so long.

  18. Hi Steve. You are absolutely correct in you comments on Gerrard and on the way we should go forward with the development and re-shaping of our game. It’s what we have been proclaiming for years and have tried to display with Premier Skills coaching methodology.

  19. There seems to be some confusion at the moment over the use of the arms when in possession of the ball and needing to fend off an opponent. John often uses the expression of using “the arms as antennae”, like an insect, feeling the distance that the opponent is from him and maintaining the space in which he can retain the ball. This, of course, is not to be confused with pushing, punching or holding of an opponent.
    It is nothing of the sort, but i have seen a number of instances recently, some of them in the World Cup, when the player in possession has been penalised when he has extended a bent arm in a side-on position, in order to retain possession and turn away from his challenger.
    This application of the technical skill has been emphasised on all the Premier Skills courses which I have attended but there have been little or no mention of it on FA Coaching Courses. It needs to be emphasised on all coaching courses because it is a vital component of the players’ armoury. It also needs to be focused on in the training of referees, because the ones who are penalising it in the belief that the player in possession is committing a foul, are doing a disservice to the players to whom they should actually be protecting and encouraging.

  20. One of the earliest strike partnerships I can remember regularly combining for one to use his strength in the air to set up goalscoring opportunities for his partner, was the partnership between Jose Torres and Eusebio for their club, Benfica, and their national team, Portugal, during the sixties. During that period, Benfica reached the European Cup final on five occasions, winning one of them, and took 3rd place in the 1966 World Cup when they were,by common consent, one of the two most attractive teams in the tournament, (the other being Hungary).
    Torres scored many goals himself, but his heading ability, aided by a tall, lanky build, set up numerous opportunities for his strike partner, and probably most famous Portuguese player ever, Eusebio. They developed such an understanding that as as Torres rose to meet a high pass Eusebio was already on his way into the space that he he knew Torres had seen and where the ball would unfailingly be placed. Both players were aware of where the space was and therefore their understanding of each other’s movements over the years resulted in a devastating partnership which yielded numerous goals.
    There have been many such partnerships in football over the years, but perhaps this use of the “space in the sky” by the Portuguese duo, was the most deadly.

  21. I am currently reading “Born To Manage”, the autobiography of Terry Venables. The early chapters are particularly interesting, because Venables explains that in his early months in the job his prime concern was to ensure that all the players in the squad understood what his objectives were and how he wanted the team to play and each player’s role in the envisaged final outcome.
    This is consistent with the points made by John Cartwright when he has crticised the continual failure to reorganise and restructure English coaching. Too often the National Association has failed to present their vision of what they see as the vision which everyone, at all levels of the game, should be aiming towards. Consequently, no-one really knows in which direction they should be heading.
    The way in which the Premier Skills methodology is presented ensures that the full landscape of the football journey is layed out from day one. Similarly, Venables from day one of his appointment as England coach, presented his vision of what he was aiming for to the England players. To his mind, the journey culminated in the 4 -1 hammering of Holland at Wembley in Euro 96. Few who saw that match would disagree with him.
    It is also interesting to read that Terry Venables considered coaching get-togethers with his squad at their training base of more benefit than a couple of days rushed training followed by a friendly match. Since club managers much preferred this too, due to less chance of injury to any of their players,then perhaps Roy Hodgson could consider this as an alternative to the often meaningless, and downgraded, friendlies, which England are often subjected to, with little or no purposeful coaching beforehand.

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