The use of arms or hands in soccer is an area that raises a lot of questions for people because knowing what is and what isn’t permitted can be confusing. To help bring some clarity to this, I decided to put together a list of what a soccer players can and can’t do with their arms during a game. Hopefully, this will leave you feeling more confident in your understanding of this area of soccer.
Firstly let me give you an overview of what is allowed.
In soccer, a player cannot use their arms or hands to touch the ball during a game. If they do this, then a free-kick or penalty will be awarded to the opposing team. However, a player is permitted to make use of their arms in other ways.
Whether or not a player can use their arms or not in soccer depends on what they are using their arms for. Specific actions are allowed and won’t result in a player being penalized. But some can end up with a player being shown a red card and removed from the game.
Before we jump into the list of do’s and don’ts, let me just clarify one thing:
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1. Don’t touch the ball with your arm
One thing that most people know about soccer is that you can’t touch the ball with your hands. Although, for the most part, this is true, this rule does have exceptions and doesn’t apply to all players.
For example, a goalie can touch the ball with their arms and hands within their penalty area. In fact, I wrote a whole article about where and when a goalie can use their hands(click link) if you’re interested in reading it.
Also, if the ball hits a player’s arm, it is not automatically a handball as the contact between the ball and the player has to be intentional.
For example, if one player kicks the ball into another player’s arm at short range before they have time to move their arm, this is considered an unintentional handball and would not be penalized.
If the ball hits a player’s arm as they are falling over and they obviously make an effort to move their arm away from the ball, this should not be considered a handball.
An unintentional handball should not be penalized, and play should continue.
I remember more than one occasion while playing where the ball is coming towards you at such speed that there is nothing you can do to get your arm out of the way before it hits your arm. In these moments, you have to trust the judgment of the referee to make the right call.
But as a general rule, if the ball hits a player’s arm during a soccer game, it is considered handball as long as the contact with the ball was intentional and the player touching the ball is not the goalie within their penalty area.
The other thing to be aware of is the part of the arm that is considered to be a handball. In soccer, the entire arm, from the tips of the fingers to the player’s shoulder, is deemed to be a handball offense if the ball comes into contact with it.
2. Do use your arm to defend
It is acceptable within the rules of soccer to use your hands and arms to defend.
You can shield the ball with your arm or body and lean into another player to protect the ball or your goal. What you cannot do is let your arm make contact with the ball even if you intend to defend it.
If you watch this video below, you will see how the player uses their arm to shield the ball and keep it away from the defender who is trying to tackle them.
Taking advantage of using your arms in this way is key to becoming a good soccer player. If you have the chance, go out and practice this skill with a friend.
In fact, working on your upper body and arm strength is a key part of my 30-day Soccer Fitness Program.
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3. Don’t stick your arm out
While you can and should use your arms to defend, one thing you cannot do is stick your arm out to push an opponent away.
When you watch some other sports such as football or rugby, you will see players holding their arms out, or stiff-arming an opponent to keep them at arm’s length.
You cannot stiff arm in soccer. It is against the rules and considered to be dangerous play. [source]
4. Do use your arms for balance
To be good at soccer, you need to be able to move around, change direction, and control the ball as effectively and efficiently as possible. All of these skills require good balance. If you can balance well as you move around the soccer field, you will be a much better soccer player.
Studies have shown that arm movements have a significant effect on balance, and the movement of your arms directly relates to your balance control. These studies even recommend a balance board, such as this one on Amazon. These balance boards can be a great way to improve your balance, core strength, and ability on the soccer field.
Don’t feel afraid of using your arms as you play.
Too many soccer players are worried about being penalized by the referee for this, but a good referee will use their judgment to see that the player is merely using their arms to balance instead of committing a foul.
5. Don’t use your arm to push
A player cannot push an opponent in soccer. Use of the hands, arms, or any other part of the body to push another player is considered a foul. If this happens, the referee will award the opposing team a free-kick or penalty kick.
The rules of soccer state that if a player pushes another player in a way that is considered by the referee to be “careless, reckless, or using excessive force,” then a direct free-kick will be awarded to the team of the player who was pushed. [source]
6. Do use your arms to stay close to another player
You often see players using their arms in a soccer game to stay close to another player.
What I mean by this is that when a group of players has gathered for a set-piece such as a corner kick or free-kick, you will often see the players on the defending team using their arms and hands to touch or hold the player they are marking.
Most teams assign a specific player on their team to follow or mark a specific player from the opposing team at a set-piece. This prevents any confusion of players not knowing who is watching which player.
At the same time, while watching the opposing players, the defenders also need to watch what is happening on the rest of the soccer field and know exactly where the ball is.
To make sure the opposing player doesn’t get away from them while looking around the field, the defending players often place their hands on the player they are marking. This allows them to move with them and know where they are going if they move away.
This contact can also work as a way of preventing the player from moving away too quickly. They just have to be careful that the referee doesn’t decide they have committed a foul against their opponent.
7. Don’t grab another player
Holding or touching another player has to be used carefully and wisely as a referee may decide the player is using “careless, reckless, or using excessive force” and has committed a foul.
One player can’t grab another player in soccer because it is considered a foul. The offending player may receive a caution from the referee.
Many things in soccer come down to the judgment or interpretation of the referee.
They are ultimately responsible for the decisions that are made and will use their experience and knowledge of the game to decide what the appropriate consequence is for them.
If a player uses their hands to grab another player, it is almost certain that the referee will judge the action as illegal under the laws of the game and penalize the player who committed the offense. It doesn’t matter where or how they grab them. It’s not allowed.
8. Do use your arms to run
Using your arms to run should be recommended for any soccer player or athlete in general.
A player’s arms are a hugely important part of running. They help enhance a player’s stride and drive backward motion of the legs as well as the forward motion of the body. Poor arm movement can also significantly inhibit a runner’s performance. [source]
I’m sure you’re aware of how much running is involved in a game of soccer. Apart from a goalie, each player on the soccer field will spend a large amount of the game either running with the ball, chasing the ball or another player, or running to support the rest of their team.
Optimizing your running is a crucial discipline for every soccer player who wants to be the best they can be and see their game improve.
One way that the Runners World website recommends to help focus on the movement of your arm while running is to make sure your hand brushes your waistband or hip as it passes by, backward and forward. This is a key technique that will help you use your arms effectively while running.
9. Don’t use your hands to protect your face
When a soccer ball is flying at high speed towards your face, it can feel almost impossible to stop your hands from coming up and protecting your face from being hit with the ball.
I know from experience that there are many times on the soccer field where you want to protect your face, but unfortunately, you can’t.
You cannot protect your face with your hands or arms in soccer. If a soccer player intentionally moves their hands towards the ball, then the referee will penalize them and award a free-kick or penalty to the opposing team.
As we saw earlier, any intentional movement of the hands towards the ball is considered to be an offense in the laws of the game of soccer. [source]
So what do you do if the ball is coming directly towards your face and you don’t want it to make contact?
- You can either do your best to move out the way completely
- turn your head, so the ball doesn’t hit you directly in the face
- or embrace the moment and allow the ball to hit you square in the face. (I don’t recommend this option!)
Sometimes playing soccer can be painful!
10. Do use arms to let other players know you want the ball.
Another way to use your arms effectively in soccer is to let your teammates know where you are and that you want the ball.
When one player has the ball at their feet, and one or more players from the other team are closing in on them, they will be looking around to see an option of a player on their team who they can pass to.
At this moment, they may only have a split second to look around. Because of this, the best thing the other players can do is raise their arms to make themselves as visible as possible to the player with the ball.
When a player nearby raises their arms, it is more likely that the player with the ball will see them and pass the ball to them before being surrounded by players from the opposing team.
The reason why players raise their hands at a set-piece such as a corner kick or throw-in is similar. Players raise their hands to attract the attention of the player with the ball. If the player with the ball can see them, they can direct the ball towards them. Raising their hands demonstrates that they want the ball.
The act of raising their hands is effectively saying, “Pass the ball to me! I’m ready and available to receive the ball.”
11. Don’t use your elbows.
Along with pushing, the use of elbows in soccer is not allowed.
If a player uses their elbows with the intent of hurting or preventing another player from getting near the ball, they will be penalized by the referee. In most circumstances, the use of an elbow will result in the player being shown a red card, and having to leave the game.
The rules of the game state:
“A player who, when not challenging for the ball, deliberately strikes an opponent or any other person on the head or face with the hand or arm, is guilty of violent conduct unless the force used was negligible.”IFAB Laws of the Game
This action is regarded as violent contact and isn’t tolerated in soccer.
If, while playing soccer, you are tempted to use your elbow towards another player, stop and think about what you are about to do. Not only are you at risk of not being able to continue playing, but you could seriously injure your opponent.
12. Do use your shoulder appropriately.
One last action that you can do in a soccer game is to use your shoulder. Although this isn’t technically a part of your arm, it is legal to use your shoulder in soccer as long as it is used appropriately.
I recently wrote an article about how to use your shoulder in soccer. You can check it out to find out more.
But to give you an overview:
It is acceptable to use your shoulder in soccer to lean into another player to shield the ball or direct them away from the ball. It is not acceptable to use your shoulder to “charge” another player or cause injury to them. This action could see the player receive a caution from the referee or, at worst, be sent off.
It is also acceptable to touch the ball with your shoulder. The rules of handball only apply to the hand and arm, not the shoulder. Although it is uncommon to see a player use their shoulder during a game, it does occasionally happen. It can be an effective use of a player’s body.
I hope you now feel you understand how a player’s arm and hand can be used in soccer.
For other information about what can or can’t be done in a soccer game, have a look at the article I wrote, answering the question of whether it’s OK to substitute a substitute.
Or check out my article laying out the 11 rules that must be followed every time a player takes a throw-in.