As the most popular sport in the world, soccer is played by people of all ages. The sport is enjoyed by 265 million players, including both professional and amateur athletes.

While soccer players are known for their skilled footwork, they also use their head. This technique, called heading, is when a player intentionally hits the ball with their head.

Heading is an important soccer maneuver. However, there’s been a growing concern about its safety and potential link to brain damage.

In this article, we’ll discuss the possible dangers of heading in soccer, along with tips for preventing brain injury.

Heading is a soccer technique. A player hits the ball with their head to move it in a certain direction. They may head the ball toward another player, across the field, or into the opponent’s goal.

To head a ball, the player needs to brace their neck muscles. They also must move their whole body in one swift motion to properly hit the ball.

During practice, it’s common for soccer players to gently head a ball repeatedly. But in a competitive setting, they usually head the ball with more impact.

On average, a player might head the ball 6 to 12 times during one game.

Heading is considered to be an essential soccer skill. But the impact of heading presents a risk of head and brain injury.

Some injuries are severe enough to cause problems immediately or after a few seasons. However, it’s also possible to slowly develop symptoms after repeated smaller injuries.

These injuries can happen due to ball-to-head contact. They may also happen during accidental head-to-head contact, when two players head for the same ball. Possible injuries include:


A concussion happens when your head is hit very hard. It’s a type of traumatic brain injury. In soccer, approximately 22 percent of all injuries are concussions.

After a concussion, you might stay awake or lose consciousness. Other possible symptoms include:

  • headache
  • difficulty focusing
  • memory loss
  • confusion
  • blurry vision
  • dizziness
  • balance problems
  • nausea
  • sensitivity to light or noise

Subconcussive injuries

A subconcussive injury also happens when a person’s head is hit with a strong force. But unlike a concussion, it isn’t severe enough to cause obvious symptoms.

The injury still causes some brain damage though. Over time, repeated subconcussive injuries can accumulate and result in more serious damage.

This type of repetitive head trauma is associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The risk of CTE is higher when someone experiences both subconcussive brain injuries and concussions over many years.

CTE isn’t yet fully understood. Many factors, like genes and diet, may affect how head trauma leads to CTE.

The symptoms are also different for each person. Possible early signs include:

  • poor self-control
  • impulsive behavior
  • memory issues
  • impaired attention
  • trouble planning and doing tasks (executive dysfunction)

In addition to soccer, CTE has been seen in athletes who play other contact sports like wrestling, football, and ice hockey. More specific research is needed to understand how soccer is linked to CTE.

Generally, younger soccer players are most likely to get brain injuries from heading.

That’s because they haven’t fully mastered the technique. As they learn how to head, they’ll usually use incorrect body movements. This increases the risk of brain injury.

Additionally, their brains are still maturing. Their necks are also typically weaker compared with the necks of older players.

Due to these factors, younger players more vulnerable to the dangers of heading.

While it’s not always possible to fully avoid brain injuries in soccer, there are ways to reduce the risk:

  • Practice proper technique. Learning the right technique from the start can protect your head. This includes stabilizing your neck and torso in a way that decreases harmful impact.
  • Wear headgear. Headgear, like helmets, also minimizes impact. Helmets are lined with padding that reduces shock to your skull.
  • Follow the rules. During a game, be a good sport and follow the rules. This decreases your chances of accidentally hurting yourself or another player.
  • Use proper coaching. Coaches can teach athletes to gain better control of their movements. Talk to the coach if you’re concerned about brain injuries.

In 2016, the United States Soccer Federation, commonly referred to as U.S. Soccer, issued a mandate for heading in youth soccer.

It prohibits players 10 years and younger from heading soccer balls. This means coaches aren’t allowed to teach them heading techniques.

For children 11 to 13 years old, heading practice is limited to 30 minutes each week. The player can’t head a ball more than 15 to 20 times a week.

The purpose of this law is to raise awareness about head injuries and protect younger players. It went into effect January 2016.

If you think you have a concussion, it’s important to follow a certain protocol. This includes a series of steps that help manage concussion recovery, such as the following:

  1. Stop the activity and rest immediately. Avoid physical and mental exertion. Get examined by the team’s healthcare provider, if possible.
  2. See a doctor for an evaluation, even if you don’t have immediate symptoms. Some symptoms can take hours or days to show up.
  3. Rest for at least 1 to 2 days. Take time off from sports, school, or work. Stay away from areas that overstimulate the brain, like crowded malls. Similarly, avoid reading, texting, or other activities that worsen symptoms.
  4. If you’re in school, wait to return to class until your doctor says it’s fine to do so.
  5. Return to play when your doctor says it’s OK. Practice light aerobic exercises like walking or swimming for 15 minutes.
  6. If you don’t have symptoms during light exercise, begin sport-specific activity.
  7. Start noncontact sport drills if you don’t have symptoms during sport-specific activity.
  8. Begin full-contact practice. If you don’t have symptoms, you can return to competition.

Every team, organization, and school has their own protocol. Be sure to follow the procedure, along with your doctor’s instructions.

Since some symptoms of brain injuries aren’t obvious at first, always pay attention to your body.

Visit a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms after heading in soccer:

  • repeated vomiting
  • unconsciousness lasting longer than 30 seconds
  • worsening headache
  • lasting confusion
  • seizures
  • persistent dizziness
  • vision changes

Heading in soccer can increase your risk of concussions. Over time, repeated subconcussive injuries can also accumulate and cause brain damage.

But with proper technique and protective head gear, it’s possible to reduce your risk.

You can also stay prepared by learning the concussion protocol. If you suspect you have a head injury, visit a doctor immediately.