New research into heading in youth football highlights need for better training


In a world first, a local academic has researched and demonstrated the impact of heading in the game and recommended the use of a lighter ball for training and improvement of heading technique especially in young players.

Dr Kerry Peek, senior lecturer in physiotherapy at the University of Sydney is well known in the area of reducing sport-related head and neck injuries having previously worked with elite athletes in football, rugby union and Formula 1 in both the UK and Australia. She was also invited to present to the UEFA Medical Committee during the drafting of their heading guidelines released in May 2020, as well as presentations on heading planned for the International Olympic Committee World Conference on the Prevention of Injury and Illness in Sport next year.

Kerry is the lead researcher on a number of scientific papers on heading, and has received support funding from both FIFA and Sports Medicine Australia for her latest research focused on ball characteristics and the effects of a neck strengthening exercise program on reducing head acceleration during heading in youth players. The key recommendation from the research is that lighter balls (or match balls with reduced ball pressure) should be used in training when heading is practised.

Further, and having demonstrated the influence of neck strength on the reducing head impact during heading, Kerry recommends the implementation of a series of appropriate neck exercises, taking less than two minutes to complete and requiring no additional equipment, for all young players.

“Whilst heading remains an integral part of football, our goal is to make it as safe as possible for all players, regardless of age, experience or playing level,” said Peek.

“We hope that by engaging with players, coaches and clubs we can implement a number of low risk strategies which will potentially benefit millions of players worldwide.

“These strategies include adding neck exercises to current injury reduction exercise programs (such as the FIFA 11+ and FIFA 11+ kids) as well as teaching good heading technique using a lighter ball.

“I wish to thank Peter Hugg and Football NSW for their ongoing support.”

Former Socceroo, A-League player and current Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers W-League team, Dean Heffernan, was interested in some of the work being conducted by Kerry and her team and recently reached out to her. Having suffered a serious head injury during his playing days, he has since studied the area and worked towards developing a series of heading drills suitably designed for youth players. Dean and lifelong friend Andrew Head, a local football developer, recognised the importance of ball properties and designed a modified ball specifically aligned to heading and Kerry’s recommendations.

“As a father of two young boys who are passionate about football and being a former player, I am well aware of the risks associated with heading in football,” Heffernan stated to Football NSW.

“The welfare of my boys and other players when heading is of the utmost importance and the reason why Andrew and I started this journey.

“Part of Kerry’s research looked at the effects of different footballs on head movement during heading. The results showed that our football can reduce head acceleration by as much 50% compared with a FIFA regulated match ball. The ball we have developed has the advantage of being lighter without compromising playability.”

Football NSW’s Head of Football, Peter Hugg applauded the group’s efforts in making the game safer, but in particular the collaborative approach undertaken in both the study and ongoing work.

“To have a well renown University and an internationally recognized researcher in Kerry and her team of students, coaches, neuropsychologists, biomechanist, a representative from the ball industry and the sport itself at Member Federation, Association and Club level, come together and collaborate is testimony to what is possible when we work towards a common objective. The fact that it is about increasing player safety and minimising the risk of injury in the game is even more pleasing.”

Dr Peek, herself a mother of a player in the Sydney FC NPL youth program, has conducted research with several football entities across Sydney, including Football NSW’s Girls’ Institute Program, Northern Suburbs Football Association and Northern Tigers as well as engaging with two of the leading sports schools in NSW.

Dr Peek and Heffernan will talk on the subject and present the findings and recommendations at the upcoming 2020 Australian Coaching Conference to be held on Saturday 28 November. Registration for the Online Conference can be made here.

Caption:  Dr Peek testing the maximal isometric neck flexor strength of a youth football player