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Resources Aug 29, 2012

Picking out boots: How in the world do I choose?

By Dr. Wendy Lebolt

Have you shopped for cleats lately? Kids’ cleats? It’s a pricey experience and quite an education. With a whole wall of the things in front of you, how do you know which pair is right?

Recently we went to a local soccer store which supplies uniforms and equipment to lots of area teams. There were separate sections for men’s, women’s and youth. No line separating these, by the way, and for good reason. Everything is in play. And by the way, neon pink is the new black and white. Real men do wear pink, don’t they?

And so, apparently, do 9-year-olds on their first travel team. One came in to get her Loudoun Soccer uniform. Once she saw those pink-striped adidias, nothing else would do. I guess, at age 9, it’s all about the statement you make stepping on the field. Forget the fit!

I’ll admit, I shook my head. Who cared what color? We were looking for stable, well-fitting, comfortable boots. Then my 15-year-old informed me that hers had to be blue. Kids will be kids.

The salesperson who helped us said she played, and she looked the part, so I asked her how to pick cleats. Hey – I know the sport and a bit about injuries, but fashion and fit are not my forte. Ask my kids. The salesperson said there were three levels in the quality of shoes (and by this she meant price.) She called them lower end, mid-range and high. Some might say youth/adolescent/advanced. At the high end you were talking $200, $250, perhaps more. I wondered what made them worth that much.

According to shoe manufacturers, a leather-upper that “fits like a glove” and “molds to your foot” gets top billing, as long as money is no option. Close in importance is light weight. She showed me this season’s new cleats; their improvement was a slightly lower-profile blade that made the shoe lighter. I could hear the cash register’s “ka-ching” noise on that one.

I’m sorry, shoe dealers, but the whole conversation was sounding a bit like my weekend-golfing husband’s shopping for the latest “top-performing” driver. It would surely take many strokes off his score, he was told. Where, I wondered, does working on his swing come in? And that putting stroke? But I digress.

Would “the best cleats” make my kid “the best player”? Not without a lot of time on the training pitch and a whole lot more in the backyard – and likely not even then. So how do I decide what to buy? Soccer Wire has invited me to share on the blog, so here’s what I have learned. Here’s a good article with more details.

Give them credit – in response to the demand from our younger, fitter, more agile kids, the soccer boot manufacturers are supplying more choices in a “performance” boot for the younger player.

It’s not that the cleats make them perform, but that kids with a strong game demand a lot from their cleats. Certainly, the fit and feel of boots on ball is important. It is the players’ primary point of interaction with the ball, after all. But, the boot must also be biodynamically sound. As a fitness professional, I see tons of kids with nagging injuries to feet, shins, knees and ankles thanks to ill-fitting, poorly-chosen footwear. They need stability, motion control/slippage prevention inside the boot, plus support and cushioning to help ward off plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, various tendinitises and blisters – just to name a few dangers.

I still remember hearing an orthopedist describe the soccer cleats we wore only 10 years ago as “running on cardboard.” I knew immediately that she was right. And let’s not forget, they’ll be wearing these in the mud and the rain and, if we’re lucky, they’ll last a whole season before they outgrow them.

So here’s what I know. Cleats should offer both “feel on the ball” and strength in the challenge. Fit is key. Freedom of function and movement is essential. Support is non-negotiable. Begin by considering:

  • What surface they will primarily be playing on? Firm ground is the usual, turf shoes with round rubber studs may be an additional purchase.
  • What level do they play/how will the shoes be used? Are power and swerve factors?
  • Do you know how to determine fit? Elite and professional players often wear their cleats one to one-and-a-half sizes smaller than their known Brannock measurements. This is not the thumb’s width our mother always used.)
  • Are you just shopping for color? Take a look at the lining materials, the construction, the lacing systems. Hey – for younger kids…will those laces stay tied?! I am not kidding here, am I, coaches?

Look carefully for:

  • The shape of the “last.” This is true for any sport shoe. The last is the structure of the footbed found under the sockliner of the boot. If their feet sag inward (known as pronation) find a straight or slightly curved last. If they roll to the outside (called supination) seek a slightly or more significantly curve lasted boot to stabilize foot movement.
  • The “upper” (the soft portion of the cleat that surrounds the foot) can be synthetic or leather. Synthetic doesn’t absorb water and may facilitate swerve. It may help them bend it like Beckham. Leather is softer, more moldable, and often lighter in weight. Either way, it should be well stitched and well secured to the outsole.
  • A firm heel counter. (The heel counter is the cuplike structure that anatomically cradles the back of the heel.) Howard Liebeskind, DPM, writes, “Higher heel counters tend to yield greater rearfoot control to the vigorously training player. A well-constructed counter will not bend out of alignment with varus or valgus (translation: rolling outward or inward) game force and will maintain a parallel, vertical position when viewed from the posterior of the cleat, even after long-term use. A quality external heel counter should be rigid. It must also be accompanied by comfortable padding on the internal surface to prevent friction, irritation and blistering.”
  • A well-designed sockliner which can help provide proper midfoot support, torsional (twisting on pivots) control, and forefoot flexibility.

Note: If they/you need additional cushioning or support, I highly recommend a supportive insole like Spenco or Superfeet. Take out the sockliner and replace with the insole. If they/you use orthotics, make sure these fit appropriately in the cleats. They do make the foot ride higher and this can significantly alter the fit.

Here are a few more things my research unearthed.

Many women are wearing “men’s” boots because they need the forefoot width men’s cleats provide, even though the rear portion and heel are narrower. Women compensate with tighter lacing and make do. Width is the primary difference between men’s and women’s cleats. Soccer cleat manufacturers, are you listening? There is a big market out there for women’s boots with a narrow last but a wider toe box!

The jury is still out as to whether cleats vs. blades (the former is flat on the bottom, while the latter is more pointed) plays a role in twisting injuries to the ankle or the knee. Both provide the necessary traction to prevent slipping and facilitate propulsion, but I have not found definitive science that says one or the other helps or hinders in cuts and pivots.

There is a lot of cleat loyalty out there. Blog comments are rampant in preaching whatever cleat the poster prefers.  This should go without saying but it doesn’t: every foot is different. We want to recommend for others what works for us. Don’t! Just because you love them doesn’t mean they’re right for your kid and just because their brother was state champion in them doesn’t mean it’s what they should be wearing.

Invest in good socks. Even if you choose the lower-priced cleats, please invest in good, synthetic, flexible soccer socks for your kids. Don’t go with the cotton that bunches and rubs when it gets wet. Blisters will make your kid miserable and the ensuing limp and hop may have bigger, injury-laden consequences. Yes, the tie-dyed socks are fun, but they are not for regular competitive wear.

Choose running shoes for the fitness/conditioning portion of your practice if you separate this out and have kids putting in long, fitness-only endurance efforts. Give those knees and ankles a break and help them maximize their effort.

More dollars don’t guarantee a good shoe. An article by Jenny Sander, DPM, in Podiatry Today identified a mechanical deficit in the $250 Adidas soccer cleats they evaluated. The cleats sat everted (tilted) on their testing on the tables. She shows another line of Adidas offerings that sit properly. See the article here. Shoes should sit flat and balanced on a solid surface before you ever put them on, and they should remain that way with wear.

As we send our kids out to do battle with their feet, at least we can be confident in the armor they wear.

And please let me know what you found in your soccer footwear shopping this season. Play well and, by all means, do it in living color. Perhaps even neon…pink is okay.

[Editor’s note: This is the latest column from Dr. Wendy Lebolt, a longtime coach and physiologist who is the founder of Fit2Finish, a Northern Virginia-based training, fitness and rehabilitation company which works with teams and individual players to maximize health and performance. The Soccer Wire is excited to present Wendy’s learned perspectives on the mental, physical and psychological aspects of the beautiful game. Learn more about her background here.]