Updated: 11/01/2023

Mastering the Head and Shoulders Pattern in Trading

head and shoulders pattern
.18 Sep 2023
author avatar image Chad Smith

Table of Contents

In the ever-changing landscape of financial trading, one of the most crucial components that can define the success or failure of an investment decision is the ability to understand and interpret market patterns. Among myriad possible indicators, the head and shoulders pattern is considered a reliable and classic tool, often used by traders to anticipate potential trend reversals and make effective investing decisions. This essay provides an in-depth examination of the head and shoulders pattern, highlighting its fundamental aspects, interpretation, practical applications, common mistakes and advanced concepts and variations. By utilising diagrams, real-life examples, and case studies, we delve into the formation of this pattern, its significance, and how to avoid pitfalls often encountered in employing this pattern.

Understanding the Basics of Head and Shoulders Pattern

Defining the Head and Shoulders Pattern

The head and shoulders pattern is a graphical representation on a trading chart containing three peaks where the middle peak or the ‘head’ stands taller than the two outside peaks or ‘shoulders’, showing a resemblance to a human body silhouette. This pattern is predominantly observed in price movements of securities and is often interpreted as a trend reversal pattern. The head and shoulders pattern is widely recognised and considered a reliable tool within technical analysis, used by traders to predict a potential reversal from bullish to bearish market conditions.

Components of the Head and Shoulders Pattern

Three main parts constitute the head and shoulders pattern: the left shoulder, the head, and the right shoulder. The ‘left shoulder’ depicts the peak where prices reach a high and then fall, followed by the ‘head’ which is a higher peak where prices rise above the previous shoulder and drop again. The ‘right shoulder’, although lower than the head, mirrors the left shoulder as prices rise and drop once more. The ‘neckline’ is another essential component serving as a point of support for the bottom of the pattern.

Recognising the Pattern

To successfully identify a head and shoulders pattern, observe the following sequence:
  1. An uptrend leading to the formation of the left shoulder – the price rises, forms a peak and then declines.
  2. This is followed by a surge in price forming the ‘head’, where the price reaches a peak greater than the left shoulder and again falls back.
  3. Subsequently, the price again increases forming the ‘right shoulder’ which is typically lower than the head, and finally declines to match the dip after the formation of the head.
  4. Draw a line – “neckline” – across the bottoms (troughs) formed during the pattern.
In an ideal scenario, the shoulders should be approximately symmetrical and reach almost similar levels. However, the pattern’s utility doesn’t diminish even if this is not the case. It’s the trend reversal that these patterns indicate which is of prime importance to the traders.

Significance of the Head and Shoulders Pattern

The head and shoulders pattern is crucial from a trading perspective as it signifies a potential turnaround in the price trend of a security. Upon its completion, the pattern serves as an indicator that the financial instrument’s price could potentially move against the previous trend; i.e., a change from upward to downward direction. Traders often look for a confirmed break below the neckline, followed by high trading volume, as the final confirmation of a valid head and shoulders pattern. The price target is often ascertained by measuring the vertical distance from the neckline to the top of the head and subtracting this distance from the neckline.

Interplay with Volume Aspects

Volume plays a pivotal role in confirming a head and shoulders pattern. It is usually observed that volume follows a specific path during the formation of the pattern. Initially, during the formation of the left shoulder, there is high volume which decreases as the pattern progresses towards the creation of the head. As the right shoulder forms, the volume can increase again, generally followed by a spike in volume as the price breaks below the neckline. This volume trend further cements the validation of the pattern.

Delving Deeper into the Head and Shoulders Pattern

Embarking on the journey to understand the head and shoulders pattern can offer a variety of benefits for traders. The pattern is integral in guiding trade-related decisions and plays a pivotal role in predicting future investment trends. Regardless of whether you’re an experienced trader or just starting out in the world of technical analysis, acquiring a firm grasp on this pattern is essential.

Illustration of the head and shoulders pattern, showing three peaks resembling a human body silhouette.

Interpreting the Head and Shoulders Pattern

Deciphering the Details of the Head and Shoulders Pattern

The Head and Shoulders pattern paints an image of a trend reversal in the chart, signalling a potential shift from a bullish to a bearish trend. Recognised as one of the most dependable indicators in technical analysis, this pattern sketches three peaks with the middle one higher than the flanking ones. This formation, quite indicative of a human head flanked by two shoulders, thus earns its name.

Identifying the Head and Shoulders Pattern

On a typical price chart, the ‘left shoulder’ is created when the security price hits a new high, followed by a drop. The ‘head’ is formed when the price rises again to an even higher peak before falling back. The ‘right shoulder’ is then manifested by a rally, which fails to reach the head’s high point, followed by a subsequent decline. In essence, it significantly consists of a peak (shoulder), followed by a higher peak (head), and then another lower peak (shoulder). A “neckline” is drawn by connecting the lowest points of the two troughs. The neckline is a level of support or resistance, and its slope may be either upward, downward, or horizontal.

Interpreting the Head and Shoulders Pattern

The investor’s goal is to recognise the onset of the pattern in the making and to be well-positioned to profit when the trend reverses. To effectively interpret the Head and Shoulders pattern, it is vital to understand that the pattern isn’t complete, and the reversal isn’t confirmed until the neckline is broken. A break below the neckline after the formation of the second shoulder completes the pattern and suggests a likely downward price movement equal to the distance from the neckline to the top of the head.

Significance and Critique

When it comes to the effectiveness and credibility of this pattern, there are varying perspectives. Some traders promote the head and shoulders pattern due to its visual intuitiveness and its clear rules. It can potentially predict the turning point in a bullish market into a bear market.

On the other hand, critics of this pattern suggest that such interpretations can be quite subjective. More problematic is the uncertainty about the formation of the pattern until it is almost complete. It requires substantial price movement, and the time span could range from several weeks to many months, which means it would not be suitable for short-term predictions.

Conclusion

In essence, the Head and Shoulders pattern, akin to other chart patterns within technical analysis, primarily focuses on predicting potential price direction using previously known data. This specific pattern is often championed by technical traders due to its high reliability and straightforward identification. It is crucial to remember, though, like all trading strategies, it is not foolproof and should be integral to a wider set of technical analysis tools to bolster its precision. In addition to this, traders should also take into account elements such as volume and fundamentals when utilising these chart patterns in their decision-making process.

Illustration of the Head and Shoulders pattern, showing the shape resembling a human head with two shoulders, and the neckline connecting the lowest points of the two troughs.

Application of the Head and Shoulders Pattern in Trading

Understanding the Head and Shoulders Pattern?

The “Head and Shoulders” designation refers to one of the most recognised and trusted patterns within technical analysis. Characterised by three peaks, the central apex (or ‘head’) sits higher than the two smaller ‘shoulders’ at either side. Following the formation of the ‘head’, a following ‘shoulder’ is created, bringing symmetry to the structure.

Characteristics of the Head and Shoulders Pattern

Primarily, this pattern signals a trend reversal. Hence, it is often identified after an uptrend. It consists of a left ‘shoulder’, a ‘head’, a right ‘shoulder’, and a ‘neckline.’ The neckline is drawn by connecting the two low points of the pattern. The lows are the points that create the area of support in the structure. The pattern is completed and confirmed when the support or neckline is broken, after the formation of the second or right shoulder.

Case Study on the Head and Shoulders Pattern:

An example of the practical use of this pattern in trading can be seen in the historical performance of Apple Inc. stocks in the first quarter of 2012. During this period, a head and shoulders pattern was identified following an uptrend. It started with a left shoulder in February, followed by the formation of the head in March, another right shoulder in April, and an eventual confirmation through the break of the neckline. Traders who identified this pattern could have strategically sold their stocks before the significant price drop in May of that same year.

Strategies for Entering Trades

The completion and break down of the neckline serves as a signal to enter into a short/sell position. In this situation, a trader would sell once the price breaks the neckline after the formation of the right shoulder. Usually, the price will return to the neckline level before continuing to fall again, offering a second chance to enter the trade.

Understanding this pattern can be significantly enhanced by incorporating it into a trading strategy with other technical analysis tools such as trend lines, volume, Moving Averages, and Relative Strength Index (RSI).

Strategies for Exiting Trades

The exit strategy for a trade based on the head and shoulders pattern depends on the trader’s risk tolerance and trading approach. However, a common approach is to calculate the ‘height’ of the pattern from the head to the neckline and subtracting that distance from the point where the price breaks through the neckline. This level would serve as a profit-taking target. Another common strategy is to place a stop-loss order above the right shoulder to limit potential losses if the price moves in an undesired direction.

Conclusion

In the realm of trading, utilising the head and shoulders pattern can prove to be a potent instrument, provided it is used in harmony with other instrumental tools of technical analysis. This pattern, recognised for its ability to predict a potential trend reversal, drastically assists traders in forming knowledgeable decisions about the appropriate times to embark upon and retract from trades. Despite this, it is crucial to remember that it is merely one of many forecasting tools and is not impervious to limitations, even occasionally resulting in false signals. With this in mind, the importance of proficient risk management and an astutely constructed trading strategy become evident, both being integral to success when implementing any trading stratagem, including those that hinge on the head and shoulders pattern.

Man analyzing financial charts on a desk

Common Mistakes in Using Head and Shoulders Pattern

Grasping the Concept of the Head and Shoulders Pattern

Within the scope of trading and investment operations, the head and shoulders pattern is a chart formation that flags a possible reversal from a bullish to a bearish trend. The pattern has been christened so owing to its visual resemblance to a human’s head flanked by two shoulders. It holds significant esteem within the trading community due to its reliable accuracy in identifying price reversals and market sell-offs.

This pattern manifests through the formation of three peaks, where the central peak (the head) is superior in height, while the two at either side (the shoulders) are marginally shorter and fairly equivalent to each other. The ‘neckline’ is a term coined for the line that connects the two troughs. This line represents a critical level of support or resistance. If this line is breached, it sends a signal to traders, indicating that it’s time to make a move in the market.

Common Mistakes in Using Head and Shoulders Pattern

Identifying False Patterns

One of the biggest pitfalls for traders when using this pattern is the misidentification of the head and shoulders pattern. The occurrence of a similar three-peak sequence doesn’t strictly signify a valid head and shoulders pattern. It’s critical to ensure each peak and trough adheres to the proper structure – the head has to reach a higher price than the shoulders, with the shoulders being fairly evenly matched.

Incorrect Use of the Neckline

The neckline plays a crucial role in identifying the pattern and is used as an indicator for market entry. Nonetheless, a substantial error that traders often make is misconstruing the significance of the neckline break. It’s essential to remember a mere break of the neckline doesn’t assure a bearish reversal. Traders need to wait for a close below the neckline to validate the pattern.

Neglecting Volume Considerations

Volume is substantial to the validation of the head and shoulders pattern. Generally, volume should decline as the pattern forms and increase significantly during the breakout. Disregarding volume often leads to false breakouts and unfulfilled expectations.

Strategies to Avoid Mistakes

Improving Pattern Recognition Skills

Improve pattern recognition skills so you can visually validate the head and shoulders pattern. Give importance to the nuances of the pattern – the real-world instances might vary slightly but still need to retain integral characteristics.

Patience

Develop an attitude of patience. Waiting for the neckline to break before entering a trade can be hard, but entering a trade too early can have substantial risks.

Consideration of Volume

SongTrading activity can often provide insight into the strength of a given pattern. High volume during the breakout indicates significant market interest, and increases the chances of a successful trade.

To summarise, the Head and Shoulders pattern is a vital tool enabling traders to forecast and capitalise on market reversals. Yet, like any trading approach or principle, its potency resides in precise and accurate implementation.

Image description: Illustration of the head and shoulders pattern

Photo by viktortalashuk on Unsplash

Advanced Concepts and Variations of the Head and Shoulders Pattern

Comprehending the Head and Shoulders Pattern

While the Head and Shoulders pattern might appear as a straightforward aspect of technical analysis on first acquaintance, it plays an indispensable role in evaluating and predicting trend reversals in financial markets. An archetype of the Head and Shoulder pattern portrays three peaks, representing the left Shoulder, Head, and the right shoulder, in that order. The ‘Head’ emerges as the tallest peak whilst the ‘Shoulders’ are lower.

The Inverted Head and Shoulders Pattern

The inverted head and shoulders pattern is just as the name suggests – a reversed form of the Head and Shoulders pattern. Instead of serving as a bearish reversal signal as in the classic Head and Shoulders pattern, this version indicates a bullish reversal. Hence, the pattern consists of a trough forming a left shoulder, a deeper trough forming the ‘head’, and a subsequent trough, the ‘right shoulder’, which is roughly even in depth with the left shoulder. The neckline is sketched by connecting the high points of the two troughs. A breakout above the neckline confirms the pattern and signals a buy.

The Complex Head and Shoulders Pattern

For more complex trading situations, one can look for complex head and shoulders patterns. These are essentially extended versions of the head and shoulders pattern. They possess additional shoulders or heads, thus increasing the number of peaks or troughs. This pattern typically takes longer to develop and the subsequent trend reversal can be equally prolonged.

For instance, a complex head and shoulders top pattern may contain two left and two right shoulders, doubled faced. Essentially, it consists of five rather than three tops with the central top towering above the rest. Despite the added complexity, the effective interpretation remains the same. Complete formation of the pattern, followed by a decisive breakout below the neckline, signifies a sell-off.

Multiple Head and Shoulders Pattern

Another variation is the multiple head and shoulders pattern. Here, numerous smaller head and shoulders patterns combine to form a massive head and shoulders configuration. Generally, these multiple pattern sets are a mirroring image of smaller multiple head and shoulders tops and bottoms patterns, merging into a larger pattern. Despite this apparent complexity, the pattern is affirmed just like the standard head and shoulders – upon penetration of the neckline or the validation line.

Practical Application of the Patterns in Trading

In a practical trading scenario, recognising these patterns early on is key. Novice traders who solely rely on the classic head and shoulders pattern may miss opportunities presented by these variations. A typical strategy following these patterns is to enter a long or short position after the breakout of the neckline. Stop-loss orders usually get placed above (for a short position) or below (for a long position) the most recent peak or trough.

However, one should note that these patterns, like all forms of technical analysis, are not foolproof. Always utilise a diverse array of indicators and tools. Furthermore, solidifying your comprehension of the more nuanced variations of the head and shoulders pattern can serve as a significant advantage, particularly in volatile and complex trading environments.

In conclusion, the head and shoulders pattern and its variations are valuable tools for traders. Through a firm understanding of these patterns, you can gain a critical edge in anticipating market reversals and adjust your trading strategy for taking advantage of such opportunities. Never underestimate the potential of any pattern, no matter how simple it appears.

An image showing the head and shoulders pattern on a financial chart.

The head and shoulders pattern, with its complex nuances and potential implications for trend reversal, offers traders a powerful tool in their arsenal. As we have explored, the effective use of this pattern extends beyond mere recognition, necessitating a comprehensive understanding of its interpretation, application, and the possible variations that can arise. The goal is not only to avoid common missteps, but also to leverage advanced concepts and variations for optimal trading results. The head and shoulders pattern, therefore, offers more than a glimpse into future market movements; it provides insightful data that, when interpreted correctly, allows for strategic trading decisions aimed at maximising potential gains and minimising losses.

author avatar image
Chad Smith

Chad Smith is the Director of Research & Analysis here at ForexBrokerListing.com. Chad previously served as an Editor for a number of websites related to finance and trading, where he authored a significant number of published articles about trading and the impact of technology in transforming investing as we know it. Overall, Chad is an active fintech and crypto industry researcher with more than 15 years of trading experience, and you can find him teaching his dog how to trade in his free time.