Think your head has had enough of a workout after a full day of university lectures? Step inside Ryan Sterba’s for a moment. As a defender on the Michigan men’s soccer team, he goes to practice every night, knowing that his head is in for another harsh beating – and one probably worse than any organic chemistry lecture could give you.
Sterba, like the rest of his team, understands that soccer is not just about the ability to kick the ball with your feet. Using your head – both mentally and physically – is just as important.
Look up. Imagine a soccer ball 20 feet in the air falling quickly down to you. Are you going to run away, or jump to make contact? Perhaps you would run, but Sterba takes on the challenge of the ball many times in practice and in games. He’s known as a player who likes to keep the ball in the air.
Headers, as they call them in soccer, are when players opt to hit the ball off their head instead of just keeping it on the ground.
Voluntarily offering up their noggin for such a beating might not be every guy’s dream job, but Sterba says that it isn’t so bad.
“When you go and try to hit the ball really hard – it doesn’t bother you at all – it doesn’t hurt,” Sterba said. “You’re making more of an impact on the ball than the ball is making an impact on your head.”
But players don’t just use headers because they’re fun. The technique is beneficial to both the offense and defense.
“Kevin Taylor and Chris Glinski are our two central backs,” Michigan coach Steve Burns said. “We built (the team) that way, knowing there are a lot of physical teams in the Big Ten. We wanted to make sure we had two strong ball winners in the air anchoring our central defense.”
With Taylor’s and Glinski’s 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-2 frames, heading the ball is a task both are accustomed to.
“Most of the time I go up in the air to win the ball, so we’re not under pressure – it puts the ball on the other side of the field so we can relax a little,” Taylor said.
And Glinski added that headers also “shut down the offensive attack right away.”
Offensively, headers can be used to score goals but are often tricky to pull off.
“When you’re going toward the goal, you’ve got a target you’ve got to hit,” Taylor said. “If you hit it too high, it’s going over, if you go to the left, you’re missing the target.”
Burns feels that for a goal to be made off a header, the key is to head the ball down under the goalkeeper. Goals are also used to score off corner kicks.
“Knox Cameron is very strong in the air especially on corner kicks,” Burns said. “Probably most goals that are scored off corner kicks are out of the air off the head.”
While Sterba claims that heading the ball doesn’t hurt, it is controversial whether this technique can do permanent damage. However, Burns is skeptical about this claim.
“There are some studies out there where people are trying to link heading soccer balls with brain damage,” Burns said. “I think what they find is it’s not the repetitive heading over years and years, but all the concussions that a guy takes.”
Regardless, headers are still a crucial move to master for any soccer player. And for right now, Sterba is more concerned about getting a headache from a tough lecture than going down after a header.