The Impact of the No Heading Rule for U8-U11
As of January 2016, the U.S. Soccer Federation implemented its Recognize to Recover initiative, which serves “to promote safe play and reduce injuries in soccer players of all ages."
This guideline provided youth soccer associations, leagues, and club programs nationwide with new rules to introduce, particularly regarding the use of heading in training and games.
Across the country, soccer associations and leagues have been forced to alter the rules of the sport or add new ones to meet the requirements of this initiative for player safety, such as imposing bans on goalkeeper punts and goal kicks, or creating “Build Out Boundaries” for goal kicks where the defensive team must drop behind a marked off line to allow the opposition to play out of the back without pressure.
Taking away punting and forcing young players to learn how to play out of the back sounds wonderful, in theory. However, as Newton’s Third Law famously taught us: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The intentions of this protocol are noble, some say necessary, and time will tell if the requirements will have the intended purpose of reducing the risk of head injuries in youth soccer players. Heading is an instrumental technical skill in the sport of soccer, used most effectively in defense to clear the ball out and prevent goal-scoring opportunities, and in attack to score on crosses and set pieces. Removing this fundamental aspect of the sport also impacts the actual game as a whole and changes the way teams and players are taught.
Unfortunately for youth soccer coaches, teams, and players themselves, this initiative is having unintended consequences on the actual game play at the youngest ages of club soccer.
These new rules have created opportunities for coaches and teams to manipulate them in their favor and turn them into a competitive advantage. If a coach has a lesser skilled team than their opponent, why try and play out of the back when the goalkeeper could just roll the ball to the center back, receive a pressure-free pass back, and then blast the ball as far as possible up the field?
If the opponent is not allowed to head the ball in defense, and can’t apply pressure to prevent the big kick, this is an indefensible strategy to navigate around the rules. A team can immediately get into an attacking opportunity from an aerial kick by the goalkeeper, though it’s technically not a punt or a goal kick. In the actual run of play, why even try to connect passes and build an attack? Isn’t it simpler and more effective for the players to constantly kick the ball high up the field, where the opponent cannot clear it out with their head, and allow the team’s forwards to just try and run in behind the “headless” defenders?
If that doesn’t work, the team can just continue to kick forward and pressure the opponent’s defense, as they desperately try and receive the bouncing ball out of the air with their chest while under constant threat.
Players at the U8-U11 age group are still building their technical skill foundation and their ability to cleanly receive a ball and play quickly under pressure. These new rules, when used strictly with a results-oriented mindset, incentivize attempts to capitalize on this natural weakness of young soccer players and make it increasingly difficult to teach quality soccer when up against these strategies.
These mandates have essentially removed the advantage that technically skilled U8-11 players had over their opponent; if passing and receiving the ball are not as useful of tools when the ball is in the air more often than on the ground, then less technically developed players are the ones benefitting the most.
In today’s American youth soccer landscape, the emphasis on winning over player development is still all too prevalent.
When given the opportunity to manipulate the rules to give their team a greater chance at success, I believe the majority of coaches find that opportunity simply too tempting to resist.