Coach: Heads up! Good advice for young athletes (and fans too)

I always find it a little bit ironic when I hear folks yell “heads up!” at a sporting event. This is usually done to quickly notify a person not paying attention that some kind of dangerous projectile is headed their way.

This simple phrase has been passed down — really without much thought — from generation to generation. Saying “heads up” to someone is usually stated with all the planning and forethought of swatting a mosquito from your arm when you spot one.

But really, the worst thing we can say when someone is about to get hit is “heads up!” Think about it: You look up and — boom! — you get nailed in the old noggin. “Head down!” would probably be a much more appropriate warning.

Which brings me to the topic for this week: The “heads up” concept for young athletes.

Unlike for the distracted fan, the “heads up” concept for athletes in competition is critically important.

Safety, and in particular head concussions, are of much concern right now, and rightfully so.

As a new sports season is upon us, it’s good to take a look at some common examples where “heads up” becomes an important sports teaching tool.

1) The first one is easy: offensive lineman in football. The expression “keep your head on a swivel” has oft been taught to the big fellas up front. They have to keep their heads up and constantly turning even before the play starts. Not so much for safety, but more for strategy and awareness. Remember — the defense in football can move, the O-lineman cannot. So for these unsung warriors of the gridiron, keeping the head up is essential for both health and well-being.



2) Defensive players in football when making a tackle. A critical safety reminder here — and one our outstanding high school coaches teach and emphasize every day. When readying oneself to make the forceful hit, keep the head up and slide it to the side to prevent direct impact. Never head-first contact! Another easy one.

3) Soccer players. Now we get a little more off the “common ground.” First and foremost, I would say this: Why are soccer players not required to wear a protective head band? Seems like a no-brainer (pun intended).

The guys and girls playing soccer today are bigger, stronger and more physically aggressive than ever. The head contact on 50/50 balls in the air can be nothing short of brutal, and why no helmet or at least padded headbands are required to be worn has long been a source of wonder for this writer.

4) Here is another “non-common denominator” thought on soccer. I coached AYSO soccer in Glenview for many years. In my final years of coaching, I changed my thinking and told the kids NOT to use their heads on long kicks down the field. Instead, I urged them to let it bounce first and then head it — thus taking away much of the initial hard contact.



Did it hurt us strategically? Maybe a little bit. But I thought it well worth it considering the impact a long kicked ball can have off the head of a young athlete.

5) One more “heads up” thought, this one for basketball coaches, though it could definitely apply to other sports as well.

When a basketball is loose and on the floor, coaches teach their players to dive for it immediately to gain possession away from the opposing team. “Get on the ground!” is usually the frenetic call from the coach. Many coaches and teams will even practice this technique as a sign of toughness and aggressiveness. This was me for many years of basketball coaching, but no more.

In my final years of coaching, I changed. I still wanted the kids to get on the ground for the loose ball, BUT — and here is the big key — I taught them NOT to dive head first. Not to lead with the head. Too dangerous. You get two, three, four players diving full speed head first for a loose basketball and the risk of significant head-on collision is way too high.

I still taught the players to “get on the ground,” yes, but instead to dive feet first — not head first — and sort of “slide” into the ball. The feet can handle the hard contact. The head? Not so much.

A slight strategic disadvantage? Again, maybe. But one I was willing to accept to protect the young athletes from potential concussions.

So come this fall season, remember “Heads up!” as a great and simple reminder for all our young athletes to stay safe and concussion-free.

And for those fans who may not be paying attention as a flying object is headed their way? “Head down!” might be a safer way to go.

• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email


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