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.
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’.