Protective equipment is pretty easy to define for football players. You’ve got helmets, shoulder pads, knee and thigh pads. Even preventative braces for knees and ankles make the list for certain players. However, shoes don’t often come to mind when some coaches think of protective equipment.
Equipment managers disagree with this notion. Certainly, retail shoes may not always provide the best protection because they are often too narrow and the arches don’t fit players well. They are generic, by definition. But good coaches and equipment managers know they can improve the safety of players by paying close attention to how shoes fit.
Just look at the NFL to see how shoes affect player safety. As of early 2018, every single NFL locker room contained a highly accurate 3D scanning system made by technology manufacturer HP. The system scans a player’s foot in three dimensions. The data obtained helps find the cleat that best fits the player’s feet. The NFL has also done extensive studies on grip and release ability of shoes on various surfaces, because if a player has too much grip on a given surface, he is asking for an injury to happen.“The wrong shoe can create a lot of issues: Plantar Fasciitis, turf toe, ankle sprains, rolling the ankle,” says Ryan Grooms, former Head Football Equipment Manager for the University of Notre Dame, a title he held through the 2017 football season. Grooms is now Vice President of Elite Accounts in the Midwest for VICIS. “It’s good to get players on the Brannock Device to check the width and length of his foot. An athlete may think he’s a certain size, only because he doesn’t know any better.”
Grooms says some athletes wear a certain shoe size because it’s comfortable, when it actually may be too big or too small, thus causing serious issues. He says coaches and equipment managers can request fitting posters from the three major shoe manufacturers to help them provide the proper size, as well.
“These posters are great tools of reference,” he says. “If you’re 225 pounds or less, then you’re good for this particular shoe, for example. If you’re above 225 pounds, then you shouldn’t necessarily be wearing it. These posters have it all mapped out by certain positions as well.”
Don’t Stress Out
Football coaches and equipment managers must also understand that on top of providing great protection, the proper shoe can help prevent injury as well. Here’s a great example.
A high school football player is transitioning to the college game. He may be comfortable playing in a high-top shoe, but as he gets older, his ankles, joints and muscles are changing right along with his age. His foot at the beginning of fall camp may not be the same foot he played on at the end of his senior year in high school.
Good equipment managers and athletic trainers know they can help athletes prevent injuries by selecting the appropriate shoe as it pertains to bodily stresses.The athlete may like his high-tops laced up tight because it stabilizes his ankles, but with stiffened ankles come greater stresses on the knee joint. Low-top shoes perform in exactly the opposite manner. The knee may face lesser stress with a low-top shoe, but the ankle is now more vulnerable to injury. This risk/reward mix is something that coaches, equipment managers and athletic trainers can modulate using the proper shoe.
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“I’m always looking at what position they play, because that could have an impact on the type of shoe they should wear,” says Brad Oster, E.M.C., athletic equipment manager for McKendree University. “I’m also going to look at the type of field surface they are playing on, because molded cleats probably get better traction on artificial surfaces. And, I’m going to make sure we have a proper fit, which is going to help with ankle injuries, knee injuries and adjusting the stress on those joints.”
Oster references a study in which he found 90% of shoes that athletes wear are too small. Many athletes wear them this way because they feel like it keeps their foot tighter and more secure.
“If your foot is all cramped up inside your shoe, this is going to cause issues, too,” says Oster.
The player’s position matters, as well. Offensive linemen’s shoes should have more flare in the back of the shoe where the heel is located.
“As that athlete is playing, the more flare they have, the more friction they have with the ground,” says Oster. “This helps with blocking. A running back’s shoe should have less flare on the heel, which allows for that athlete to cut and perform those movements in a safer manner. At the same time, a shoe with more flare on the heel can put more pressure on the knee, so if your athlete has knee problems already, you need a shoe with less flare.”
Certainly, fitting the appropriate shoe to the right athlete is a bit of a balancing act. But, by identifying playing surface and player position, following manufacturer guidelines, and understanding an athlete’s risk for injury to knees and ankles, coaches and equipment managers can keep athletes healthy and effective by choosing the appropriate football cleats.
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider. Follow him on Twitter at Football Coach Daily.